OTTUMWA – Losses are a part of sports on all levels.
This past year, however, it wasn't about the results on the scoreboard. The most difficult losses came away from the field as student athletes faced an unprecedented challenge just to be able to compete.
For the first time in decades, a worldwide pandemic brought life as many knew it to a sudden halt. Local high school athletes were sent home in the midst of the school year with hopes of competing on the track, the tennis court and the soccer field ultimately brought to an unexpected end.
"It's hard to believe my senior year is over now in beginning of May," said Ottumwa senior Alli Bookin-Nosbisch days after the official cancellation of all high school athletic activities across the state of Iowa due to the risk of spreading the coronavirus. "It's definitely different from what I expected a few months earlier. With that being said, we're trying to stay positive. Looking at our circumstances, it could be worse. We just tried to take a look at our circumstances and be thankful for what we do have."
The 2020 local sports year was one that truly tested the resiliency of so many coaches and athletes. Never had the current young men and women that represented area schools and communities had an entire season shut down with many students facing an unprecedented future of online learning and incredible uncertainty of when, if ever, they could reunite with their friends and classmates as social distancing became a mandatory condition for any extra-curricular activity.
"The question everyone has to consider is when is the time that we can actually go back and not have to worry about your health?" asked Jim Nickerson, who saw his final season as head boys track and field coach at Ottumwa come to a sudden end. "Everyone's health and safety comes first. The competition comes second."
The answer to Nickerson's question would come later in May, when Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds announced that summer athletic seasons may be conducted for high school baseball and softball following a two-month activities suspension due to COVID-19. The announcement approved the reopening of school facilities and the start of practices for the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union and the Iowa High School Athletic Association sanctioned summer sports starting on June 1, bringing student athletes back to the field after an agonizing spring.
"It just feels really good to be out here," said Albia senior Alex Beard after a season-opening win over Eddyville-Blakesburg-Fremont on June 15, the first night of high school athletic competition in almost three months. "To be out here facing a rival and working together towards the goal of a state championship is really exciting."
The Lady Dees would prove to be the most resilient of all area teams during a summer that would test coaches and players before, during and after games. Several new restrictions were put in place for teams in order to compete safely including required temperature checks before every practice and every game, the sanitization of all equipment before and after each game and limits on spectators that would only increase as activities continued into this winter with only two spectators per student athlete eventually required heading into the current high school basketball season.
"It was a little unusual during that first day back at practice," Ottumwa senior softball player Hannah Huisinga said this past summer. "We're so used to being at practice working every single day before June 1. I don't think I've had my temperature taken before a practice. Still, I get goosebumps thinking about what it meant to hear that announcement that we would be able to play softball this summer. It's almost an indescribable feeling to walk back out to the softball field where I've been raised all my life. To be able to end my senior year on the softball field is indescribable."
High school softball and baseball came and went this past summer with all area teams able to finish their seasons on their own terms in postseason play. Centerville made the deepest run among the high school baseball area programs, falling just short of a fourth straight trip to the Class 3A state tournament losing a 4-1 substate championship contest to eventual state champion Norwalk.
Still, just being able to finish the season on the field meant to world to student athletes like Brady Kauzlarich. Area schools including West Des Moines Valley and East Marshall were not as fortunate with the top-ranked (4A) Valley baseball team having to end its season prior to postseason play due to COVID-19 while East Marshall had to forfeit a regional championship game to Ogden after a positive test was reported on the way to the game.
"It could have been one practice for us or three games and we could have been done," Centerville junior Brady Kauzlarich said after the substate final loss to Norwalk. "You just never knew when the state was going to make the call that we're done playing this summer. We always talked this season as a team about the goal of making sure that our season ended on an out. I'm thankful we had a season and had the chance to show what we could do. I think we had more to prove, but I think we proved a lot as a team. We came far with the number of games and days we had this season."
Ultimately, the sports year that began with a perfect run to a state wrestling title for EBF senior Sage Walker and featured a 30-win run to another national tournament for the Indian Hills men's basketball team prior to the pandemic resumed with an unprecedented season for the Albia High School softball team. After making it to state each of the previous three seasons without winning a state title, the Lady Dees earned one last chance with a group that included perhaps the most decorated senior class in the history of the program.
That class, which included the pitcher-catcher combo of Beard and Jena Lawrence, broke through this past spring to bring home the first team state title in the history of Albia High School athletics. Lawrence completed one of the all-time great seasons for any high school pitchers, going 20-0 earning her 100th career win in the process with a 0.91 ERA and 182 strikeouts.
Lawrence also led Albia at the plate, finishing a team-best .426 batting average on 29 hits while driving in a team-high 20 runs. In the Class 3A state championship game, Lawrence tossed a complete-game shutout in the pitching circle and drove in the only run, blasting a solo home run to center field to open the fourth inning of a 1-0 win over Williamsburg on a day that will never be forgotten during a year that will never be forgotten.
"I'm so glad that Governor Reynolds made that decision to allow us to come back," Lawrence said. "I don't even care that we started a little later. I'm so grateful for the season that we had. Without that decision, I wouldn't be standing at Harlan Rogers Park with a state championship trophy in my hands. I wouldn't have those state tournament medals around my neck. I wouldn't have had that state championship t-shirt to wear. I'm really happy, blessed and grateful she made that decision to let us play."
So far, the overall high school sports has continued uninterrupted around the state through the fall sports season and into the winter. Schools have had to deal with disruptions due to COVID-19 outbreaks, including the end to Albia volleyball season prior to postseason play and a four-week delay to open the winter sports season at Fairfield as the school went to virtual learning.
Ottumwa has also had to learn to adjust to sudden changes in their schedules with the Des Moines Public Schools so far relying almost exclusively on virtual learning due to concerns of spreading the coronavirus with in-person classes. So far this school year, Ottumwa has only competed in one CIML Metro competition coming in early September when the Bulldog boys golf team hosted several conference schools in a quadrangular at Cedar Creek Golf Course.
Ottumwa athletic director Scott Maas has worked with his coaches in putting together as much of a full schedule as possible finding replacement games and tournaments to compete in throughout the past four months. Perhaps the most extreme example came during the opening week of the high school football season when the Ottumwa Bulldogs went from a scheduled season opener against Burlington to scheduling a trip to Central DeWitt just over 24 hours prior to kickoff after the Grayhounds had to pull out of the contest.
“I think every administrator, every coach and every athlete in the state just doesn’t know how things are going to work out this season,” Maas said back in August during the annual Ottumwa A-Club golf tournament. “If we have some positive cases and kids have to sit out for a period of time or if a team that we have on our schedule has to sit out and we can’t play that team, there’s going to be a lot of fluctuation in our schedule. It’s going to be interesting to see how things work out.
“We want to make every effort to let the kids play and keep them as safe as we possibly can.”
The area high school football season ended with Sigourney-Keota advancing to the UNI-Dome to compete in the state semifinals for the first time in 15 years, finishing 10-1 with a loss to eventual two-time state champion OA-BCIG and future Iowa Hawkeye Cooper DeJean. Cardinal and Centerville both produced winning records of 5-4 while advancing to the second round of postseason play with the Comets earning a 38-29 win at Pekin, the first win over the Panthers for the program in nearly 50 years.
Both Joe Hammer and Cale Leonard represented Ottumwa at the Class 4A boys state golf meet this past fall. Leonard's first trip to the Class 4A Iowa High School Boys State Golf Tournament ended with a top 10 finish as the Bulldog junior placed eighth, posting a two-round total of 152 (+8) at the Des Moines Golf and Country Club while Hammer, playing in his second straight state tournament for Ottumwa, finished in a tie for 22nd with Indianola sophomore Jackson Overton as both golfers posted two-round totals of 159 (+17).
"Both kids represented Ottumwa with great class and pride," Ottumwa High School head boys golf coach Kyle Creamer said. "We had a great following from our community. The support did not go unnoticed by the boys and I. It was second to none."
Ottumwa was also represented at the state cross-country meet for the sixth straight year this past fall by Meghan Coulter. The Bulldog senior ran a strong race and posted her second-lowest career time at Lakeside Golf Course in Fort Dodge, finishing 80th in the 4A girls field in 20:28.9, which was 8.3 seconds faster than her state-qualifying run at Southeast Polk the previous week.
"It was a really fun race. It was amazing being able to run with such talented girls," Coulter said. "It's hard to keep track of where you are both in terms of place and time during the race with such a large field. I was a little nervous before, but as soon as gun went off, my nerves went away."
The following day saw several more area athletes take the course at the state cross-country meet. Both Pekin and Davis County sent each of their girls and boys programs to compete in Fort Dodge. The Pekin girls placed fourth in 1A, the Davis County boys finished fifth in 2A while both the Pekin boys and Davis County girls would up placing ninth in the state by the end of the first two-day state cross-country event.
"We are so proud of the historic season that they have had together in such a tough year," Davis County head cross-country coach Josh Husted said. "We reached for a goal in each and every meet and achieved success together."
Also achieving success together were Leah Chelgren, Libby Moses and Mac Payne. After making it to state in two events the previous year with then-senior Saige Knight, the Ottumwa girls swimming teammates joined freshman Ava Johnson in returning to state to compete in all three relay races this past fall with former Ottumwa YMCA Hurricane teammate Willow Larsen also qualifying for the Fairfield Trojans in the 100-yard backstroke.
“This year really showed that we can do it," Payne said. "If we are good this year, we’ll be even better next year. This really was preview of what next year is going to look like."