For Senior Athletes, The Year Comes To An Unceremonious End

Matt Hall in 2019. File Photo

After a bruising season against tough competition in 2019, the Pierson High School baseball team advanced all the way to the state semifinals, where it was ousted, 5-2, by a team with a quintessential baseball pedigree — Cooperstown.

This spring, with a core of seven seniors returning, the Whalers had reason to believe they had what it would take to bring home the first state baseball championship in school history.

Instead, like so many other graduating seniors across the East End, they are left to ponder what might have been, after their final season was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“We really felt like with this team, we could get back to states, get past the semifinal, and win it all,” said first baseman and co-captain Harry Cowen.

Centerfielder Nick Egbert, another co-captain, played with Cowen on the Whaler basketball team, which lost the county championship to Southold, a team it had defeated twice during the season. “I was really upset about it for a good two weeks,” he said of that defeat. Egbert said the more he thought about the loss — on a buzzer beater, no less — the more he realized the Whalers had looked past Southold.

That motivated him for the upcoming baseball season, and he texted coach Jonathan Schwartz, telling him, “We’re going back to the final four, and we’re going to win it all.” He followed that up with a text to his fellow seniors, letting them know “we’ve got big plans for this year I hope everyone knows it, and is serious about it.’”

Then the pandemic arrived, school was closed, and the baseball team, which had barely gotten started with practices, was derailed.

“I thought it would last a little while, and I was even holding on to hope at the end,” said pitcher Matt Hall, the team’s third co-captain, of an initial call to postpone the season that turned into full cancellation two weeks ago. “It was just taken away from us and we have no control over it.”

Hall, who will attend Xavier University in the fall, said he was still coming to terms with the idea that his baseball career is over. “I’ve been playing with these guys since I was a kid,” he said.

Looking To The Future

This is certainly not the end of the line for Isabelle Smith, a star lacrosse player at Westhampton Beach High School, who played for the world championship USA Under 19 team last summer and will play for Boston College, a three-time runner up in the NCAA tournament.

Smith and her Lady Hurricane teammates had a disappointing end to their basketball season. “We had our best season in 15 years,” she said. “We found out our season had been canceled the day before the Long Island championship game. We were all devastated.”

But Smith, who has played varsity for Westhampton Beach since seventh grade, thought she had her final lacrosse season to look forward to. “You dream about your senior season,” she said. Although she said she was sorely disappointed when the plug was finally pulled on all sports, she insists on seeing things in a positive light.

“Sometimes you have to give up what you love for others,” she said of the restrictions on social gatherings that came with the pandemic. “Maybe it’s a blessing in disguise and we have to try to enjoy the little things in life. Even though lacrosse is a huge part of my life, it’s not my life.”

Smith said she has taken advantage of the unexpected downtime to spend time with her two older sisters, who are home from college, and her parents, who are working from home.

She said for now, her last high school lacrosse game will be Team USA’s championship over Canada last summer, and she is now setting her sights on college. The NCAA has granted an extra year of eligibility to senior athletes who lost their final seasons, and Smith said she is looking forward to playing with some of the athletes who greeted her so warmly when she visited BC last year.

Disappointment And Acceptance

Caraline Oakley was a pioneer on the golf course for Southampton High School. She played on the boys team from seventh through ninth grades because there were not enough other girls interested in the sport to field a team of their own. Since the girls team was formed her sophomore year, it has gone 24-0 in match play.

Oakley has been all-state the past two seasons, finishing among the top-20 individual players in the state last year. Her goal this year was to finish among the top five.
“I don’t know how to say it other than it sucks,” she said of the loss of the season. The heartache was compounded by the fact that she played on the girls basketball team, which expected to qualify for the postseason, but was disqualified because it had played an extra game as part of a fundraising event.

Oakley, who practices on her own year-round, said she is now looking forward to attending Washington University in St. Louis in the fall and getting back on the course in her free time.

Sam Schneider, a left-handed pitcher and outfielder for the Mariner baseball team, will attend Adelphi University in Garden City this year, where he will play for the Division II powerhouse.

Like so many senior athletes interviewed, he was looking forward to finishing his high school career on a high note. Schneider, who last year gave up only five runs over 32 innings pitched, saw his season come to a disappointing end in the playoffs when a nerve problem in his elbow cost him dearly in a loss to Mattituck.

“We kind of knew it was coming, but nobody said anything,” he said of the cancellation of the season. It’s pretty tough that I never had my last opportunity.”

Schneider said it is equally tough that the school’s fields are closed, so players can’t even get together to play catch.

Lillie Minskoff, a senior sprinter for the East Hampton girls track team, who plans to compete with the Pitzer College team when she attends the California liberal arts school next year, said she, too, had been hoping to improve on personal best times in the 100- and 200-meter sprints this season.

Although she said she has done some running with her brother, the cancellation of the season had left a void. “I miss track and being out there with my friends,” she said. “It’s a little weird.”

Mimi Fowkes in 2018. PRESS FILE

Senior Mimi Fowkes has been a race walker for East Hampton since her sophomore year. She said she went out for the team as a distance runner, but her coach, Yannia Cuesta, told her “my running looks like walking. So I’ve been doing it ever since. That’s all there is to it.”

For this season, Fowkes, whose personal best in the 1,500-meter event last season was 8:06, set a goal of breaking the 8-minute mark.

“But the spring never came,” she said. Fowkes, who will attend the University of Tennessee in the fall, said she knew her career was over once the season was canceled. “Control what you can and accept what you can’t control,” she said.