Matt Tait: Coronavirus crisis forces 3 local teams to push pause on noteworthy streaks

photo by: Carter Gaskins

The Free State softball team sings the alma mater with their fans in the stands following a 1-0 victory over Washburn Rural in the Class 6A state title game Saturday, May 25, 2019 at Arrocha Ballpark.

Of all of the unexpected sports ramifications of the coronavirus crisis, learning how people define streaks ranks right up there as one of the wildest.

Ever since the NCAA decided to shut down March Madness a little more than a week ago — say that out loud until you believe that it’s been 10 days and not 10 years since that decision was made — I’ve been asked, on pretty much a daily basis, whether the lack of a tournament this season ends the Kansas basketball program’s NCAA-record streak of 30 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances.

The easy answer, and the only one that comes to mind, is no.

No tournament means no opportunity to play in it or not play in it. So Bill Self’s Jayhawks will head into the 2020-21 season with the goal of extending their streak of consecutive tournaments to 31. Whether that happens or not is a bit more complicated and includes a lot of factors. But we’ll worry about that when we get there.

While that qualifies as good news for KU fans in favor of celebrating streaks, the part of all of this that keeps pulling on my heartstrings the most belongs to the Free State softball squad and Lawrence High girls track team.

Both programs are riding 2-year state-title streaks, and athletes and coaches associated with each no doubt spent a good chunk of the offseason looking ahead to the opportunity to make it three in a row in the next couple of months.

That won’t happen this spring, of course. The Kansas State High School Activities Association already has called off the spring sports seasons, and those LHS and Free State girls fortunate enough to have eligibility remaining after this season will have to wait another full year for the chance to extend their streaks.

Much like KU’s streak of 30 becoming 31, if the Firebirds win another state softball title in 2021 and the Lady Lions come home from Wichita as queens of the track that same year, their streaks will grow from two in a row to three straight. And everyone will celebrate them as such.

But there’s a small number of athletes on both teams — the seniors — who will not get the opportunity to do that.

It’s one thing for sensational shortstop Sara Roszak, the queen of versatility Georgia Rea, and ace pitcher Tatum Clopton to endure this blow. They were all juniors this season. And they can wear this disappointment while knowing that they will get one more chance to wear Free State green and add to the legacy they’ve built as one of the most dominant softball programs in state history.

Same goes for key LHS track underclassmen Amaya Harris, Bella Kirkwood and others.

But for the seniors on those two teams — and dozens more like them in other spring sports throughout the city — this is the end. And that’s incredibly sad.

LHS track seniors Asjah Harris (last year’s individual 200-meter state champion), Sophie DeWitt, Ella Stewart and Tracy Allen forever will be able to smile about winning their final high school track meet. What a feat! But they also probably will always wonder if they could’ve done it again as seniors.

So, too, will Free State seniors Bailey Culbertson, a backup first baseman, and Haley Lockwood-Peterson, who was poised to start in center field for the fourth consecutive season and would’ve had a great shot at capping her prep career with three consecutive state titles.

All of these girls, true champions that they are, will go on to do great things in both sports and other walks of life. But there’s nothing quite like that spring semester of your senior year.

Self has spent the past couple of weeks searching for a way to celebrate the 2019-20 KU basketball team in a way that will be memorable and meaningful for years to come.

And the coaches and parents of these high school seniors who just had their worlds turned upside down no doubt are doing the same.

We’ll do our part, by highlighting several spring sports athletes and finding out what their futures hold, but nothing will fully replace the chance to play the games they love with their lifelong friends one last time.

I didn’t play a sport my senior year of high school, but I was there for almost every step of the ride, and some of my best friends, both back then and still to this day, relished the opportunity to celebrate their state titles the way young athletes should be able to — like they’re the biggest thing in the world.

These two teams got the chance to do that during the past two seasons, so they know what it feels like. And that probably makes the cancellations hurt a little more.


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