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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Sale Creek's Madison Stott (26) dances and sings along with her teammates while waiting on deck during a Class A softball state sectional game against Cosby on May 17, 2019. The TSSAA's annual Spring Fling would have been held this week in Murfreesboro, but the coronavirus pandemic canceled not only the state tournaments but most of the 2020 season for baseball, soccer, softball, tennis and track and field.

The venues felt alive. From the parking lot, walking up to the entrance, the exuberance from the teenagers on the field and the fans in the stands gave the ballparks a recognizable pulse. The noises would rise and fall — cheers, chants, cowbells, air horns — and the youthful energy was another way to identify the date on the calendar.

The week before Memorial Day has been highlighted by the Spring Fling for more than 25 years. It meant the end of another school year and the crowning achievement for prep athletes across Tennessee who compete in baseball, soccer, softball, tennis and track and field.

But this spring the sports season ended before it really began, and the week before Memorial Day is just another in a stretch of more than two months when ballparks have remained silent during the COVID-19 pandemic.

I'll admit, I even miss the sometimes insufferable dugout chants by softball teams and being told by soccer aficionados that I just didn't appreciate the subtle beauty of a scoreless match when I complained about boredom setting in.

Prep athletes have experienced the exhaustive emotional roller coaster of having the early hope of a shortened season replaced by the reality of being told it was canceled outright. All of them, particularly the seniors, wanted nothing more than the chance to wear their uniforms one more time and step on the field with their teammates.

It's been a difficult adjustment for the players, coaches, parents, fans and those of us who make our living covering the athletes and their games.

"You're not going to remember most of the games you play in. But you will remember the bus rides, the overnight stays and the funny things somebody says in a dugout," Baylor softball coach Kelli Smith said. "Every pretty day we've had, I would look out at the sun and think how we needed to be on a field somewhere.

"I had to pick up a package at the school one day, and while I was there I asked the security guard to take me in the golf cart down to the softball field. It was weird. There were no kids, no laughter, no yelling. Just silence. It was eerie. I've cried over it because I miss getting to be with the kids every day."

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Staff photo by Patrick MacCoon / Arts & Sciences track and field standout Brevin Sims was among those who had extra motivation to hope the Spring Fling would occur this season. The senior, a Syracuse signee, has won nine individual state championships.

Although there are no games to cover, and while we can't highlight every team, the Times Free Press sports staff will begin a week-long series Tuesday to honor each of the five sports that would have played its state tournament this week in Murfreesboro.

It's our way of giving a tip of the cap to the athletes, particularly the seniors, who were denied the opportunity to wear their uniforms and step on the field with their teammates just one more time.

"Your heart breaks for all the kids, but especially the seniors," TSSAA executive director Bernard Childress said. "One of the highlights of my job every year is getting to drive from venue to venue and just stand back and watch the kids compete and have fun.

"They don't realize at the time that it will be one of the highlights of their lives, and unfortunately that was taken away this year. The week of Spring Fling is very special for a lot of people. What I'm looking forward to is knowing that it will be back."

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Times Free Press sports editor Stephen Hargis

Contact Stephen Hargis at shargis@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6293. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHargis.

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