Student athletes near the ends of their high school careers—and a bittersweet final season with their teammates

Jack Palmer, a senior at St. Mark’s School of Texas, will play water polo for Santa Clara University.
Photo courtesy of Jack Palmer.

BY AXEL ICAZBALCETA   DEC. 20, 2020
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The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on high school sports has been incalculable. As seniors commit to play sports in college, their senior year season hangs in the balance. For most recruits, this season is simply a final hurrah and a chance to play with their teammates of four years one last time.

While the college recruitment process is unique to every individual, there are aspects to the journey that are common across all student athletes. Nearly all prospective recruits start putting together highlight reels and other material for college coaches early in their high school career, and then get in contact with coaches directly around their junior year. But the COVID-19 pandemic affected one key aspect of the process: in-person meetings with coaches, as happened with Gracie Meisner, a senior at Wellesley High School in Wellesley, MA committed to the Gettysburg College for swimming.

“I started my swimming recruiting process during the winter of my junior year,” Meisner said. “The beginning stages involved phone calls and Zooms with college coaches. Towards the end of my junior year, I sent them my transcript and test scores to more formally continue the process. Unfortunately due to COVID-19, I wasn’t able to go on any official visits to colleges, but I was able to Zoom with many swimmers to get a feel for which school would be the best fit for me.”

Once officially contacted by colleges, recruits then solidify this commitment through some formal process. Kelly Feng from Johns Creek High School in Johns Creek, GA committed to Ohio State University for fencing and signed a letter and contract to the college formalizing the agreement.

Tristen Cook, a high school swimmer from Grant High School in Oregon,
has yet to decide where to commit to.
Photo courtesy of Tristen Cook.

“I signed the National Letter of Intent and the Big 10 League contract that formally offered me my scholarship,” Feng said. “I signed on Nov. 11. I celebrated at home with family and friends.”

Many student-athletes were able to commit to their colleges early in the school year, sometimes even before the year started. Because of this, some recruits have been able to forgo the stress that comes with the college admissions season, as in the case of Kate Mallery, from Henry M. Gunn High School in Palo Alto, CA, who committed to Princeton for water polo in May.

“It’s very, very, very low stress [for me right now],” Mallery said. “I just don’t do anything. But also, [all the other seniors] are feeling all the stress now about getting into college. That was distributed, for me, over four years of phone calls with coaches.”

Other prospective recruits, however, especially for football, have needed that final season to show college coaches what they have to offer. According to MaxPreps, 16 states have cancelled their seasons. Some students from these states have even moved states to be able to play football, according to the Washington Post.

But even for those who have been recruited, many student-athletes still have one last high school season in their sport. According to NCSA Sports, only 13 states are playing their original fall schedule. All others are playing an “altered or delayed schedule.”

Though the pandemic has complicated the ability to practice together as a team, Mark Berlaga, a senior at Henry M. Gunn High School in Palo Alto, CA who committed to Stanford for gymnastics, has done the best he can to keep his gymnastics team together even as they are apart.

“The hardest part was the beginning of the pandemic; all the gyms in the area were closed down,” Berlaga said. “Gymnastics isn’t really a sport you can do at home, so for three months, all of that was closed. Everyday, we had an hour-long Zoom session with our team to keep our bond close together [and] to keep our fitness at a good level.”

Madeleine Kemper, who attends Lincoln High School in South Dakota, will be playing softball for Macalester College.
Photo courtesy of Madeleine Kemper.

For Knobel Hunt, a senior at St. Mark’s School of Texas in Dallas, TX and a Southern Methodist University (SMU) soccer recruit, the pandemic is simply an obstacle to his team’s goals. While safety restrictions are obviously of vital imporact, he and his team focus on the sport first and foremost.

“It’s extremely important that we follow [COVID restrictions] so that we can continue to have a season,” Hunt said. “I think it’s extremely important to acknowledge people’s concerns and be respectful of people’s decisions. But at the end of the day, my focus is not on the virus; it’s on playing soccer and having fun with my friends and working towards the championship.”

Other sports haven’t been so lucky. Jonik Suprenant, a senior at James Hubert Blake High School in Silver Spring, MD who committed to Johns Hopkins University for swimming, laments the impact the COVID-19 regulations has had on his sport.

“There’s county wide rules about people per lane,” Surprenant said. “It’s nice because we’re spread out, but it takes the only social bit of swimming out of swimming, which kind of sucks. You think of swimming as an individual sport, but when you’re through practice and someone’s talking to you, or you keep a conversation going doing a really hard set, it helps you mentally.”

While there is universal hope for a final senior season, high schoolers across the nation will have to contend with the possibility of not having this final hurrah. Schuyler Berry from Grant High School in Portland, OR, a Seattle Pacific University basketball commit, had his senior season cancelled in a disappointing letdown.

“Missing out on my final season is really sad because I ended last year expecting to have this final year to kind of have closure,” Berry said. “It kind of sucks because I feel like you work all summer and in the spring, in the offseason trying to get better and get in better shape. And I’ve done that. I’ve worked really hard to get in better shape and stuff, [but] it’s been kind of hard to find motivation to stay in shape.”

The possibility of a spring sports season, however, is still up in the air. Kit Colson, a track and field recruit from St. Mark’s School of Texas in Dallas, TX, remains hopeful for a final time on the high school track, but is grateful for the experiences he’s had the past three years.

“If I don’t have a senior season, I would be upset,” Colson said. “But I’ve had so many great memories throughout the last three years of high school that, even if I don’t have a senior year, the journey would still be worth it. Just stepping out and being together for one minute would be worth it.”

Matthew Salter, a senior at James Hubert Blake High School in Silver Spring, MD,
has committed to York College for golf.
Photo courtesy of Matthew Salter.

With or without a season, senior athletes across the country will have to say goodbye to their team for the last time this year. Matthew Salter, a senior at James Hubert Blake High School in Silver Spring, MD who committed to York College for golf, hopes to be able to have one final special moment with his team before they part ways.

“I haven’t decided [how to say goodbye],” Salter said. “Whenever that time comes, we’ll say our goodbyes, because we’re probably going to different schools. Hopefully, go have a last team dinner or something in the spring.”

For Hunt, the goodbyes will be emotional, but the time he has left with his team remains his focus for now.

“Obviously, it will be a little bit emotional,” Hunt said. “I’m thankful that this season won’t be the last time that I’ll be taking off my cleats and putting them on the shelf. I’m very grateful to have at least four more years with SMU. For now, I’m just focused on working my hardest so that we can get to the fun times at the end of the year.”