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Staff photo by Robin Rudd / Walker Valley softball players celebrate as they wait for Riley Suits to cross the plate after hitting a home run during a TSSAA District 5-AAA softball tournament game at Soddy-Daisy on May 6, 2019. Tennessee's high school softball season was called off last year due to the coronavirus outbreak, but teams can return to the field for games starting Monday.

In contrast to fall and winter sports — where the sights that surround the games are the spectacle — it's the sounds that define high school sports in the spring.

The reverberating ping of a metal bat striking a baseball or softball. The rhythmic back-and-forth "whop" between players' rackets in a tennis match. The buzz of anticipation rising from the fans when one soccer team is attacking the net for a potential goal or when a gifted sprinter hits another gear to pull away from the field.

Like so many other aspects of life's routine, stadiums and playing fields were silenced last spring as the nation began to cope with COVID-19. The pandemic's first real blow to area teams was dealt on March 12, 2020, when the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association suspended the public school state tournaments for boys' and girls' basketball indefinitely. That negated the opportunity for the Cleveland boys — the Blue Raiders were 33-1 and the state's No. 1-ranked Class AAA team at the time — to chase the program's second state title.

One day later, Hamilton County announced all prep sports were being put on hold to reevaluate the situation, and the Georgia High School Association halted spring sports altogether. The following day, Saturday, March 14, Sequatchie County hosted Whitwell in a baseball doubleheader that wound up becoming the final prep event of the school year in Tennessee.

An entire class of seniors were robbed of the chance to finish their athletic careers on the field, track or court as a two-week delay in the season turned into a month before spring sports were eventually canceled outright amid so many unknowns surrounding the virus.

"We scheduled that doubleheader just so our kids could get a couple of games in before we had to shut things down," recalled Sequatchie County coach Derrin Easterly, whose team had finished third in the 2019 Class AA state tournament and had returned five talented seniors.

"We all thought we'd be back in a few weeks. We never dreamed our season would be over. The kids texted me every day asking when they might get to come back. In the back of my mind, as the days kept going and things weren't getting better, I knew it was looking bad. It crushed all those kids when the season was canceled."

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Staff photo by Patrick MacCoon / Whitwell shortstop Thomas Ridge throws to first base for an out during a game at Sequatchie County on March 14, 2020. The Indians hosted the Tigers for a doubleheader that Saturday afternoon, and it wound up being the final high school sports competition of the school year in Tennessee as the COVID-19 pandemic led to a shutdown of TSSAA athletics.

Silent spring

As schools and businesses shut their doors and hospitals started filling up with those infected by the virus, thousands of high school seniors were coming to grip with the reality that their athletic careers were over. Many moved on to play in college, but many more did not.

"Those seniors, it should have been a special time, but it got taken away from those kids," Gordon Lee baseball coach Mike Dunfee said. "It was their time to shine."

Dunfee's Trojans were 8-2 at the time and strongly favored to capture their third consecutive GHSA Class A public school state championship. Two of the team's three seniors had already signed with college programs, Jake Wright with Carson-Newman and J.D. Day with Cleveland State. The third, Will Sizemore, went into the season knowing it would be his last because he wanted to concentrate on academics in college.

"I still hurt for Will Sizemore," Dunfee said. "That was it for him, just like that."

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Staff file photo by C.B. Schmelter / Face masks have become commonplace at sporting events during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Area high school athletes did not return to competition until mid-July, when golf began in Tennessee. Other fall sports — cross country, football and volleyball, as well as TSSAA girls' soccer and GHSA softball — followed and managed to play their seasons despite numerous interruptions to the schedule.

Although basketball season went through a three-week interruption in Hamilton County due to a spike in coronavirus cases, even that sport and wrestling — which were both in serious doubt due to being played indoors — were able to complete their seasons by crowning state champions.

Winter sports will wrap up for the area this coming week with the TSSAA's public school state tournaments for boys' basketball, with Cleveland even earning a return trip after last year's disappointment.

Now the page turns once again and the prep athletes whose seasons were most affected last year officially return to competition, bringing with them the familiar and unique sounds of spring sports. GHSA competition has been underway for weeks, and Monday is the first day for TSSAA spring sports contests.

"It's great just to have the chance to play sports again," said Sequatchie County senior right fielder Tyler Lynn. "It's something most of us have done since we were very little, so to just have it taken away like we did last year, to be told you couldn't do something you love with your friends, that was really tough.

"I would never want any other kids to have to deal with what we had to. There were lots of days where you felt really down because you missed it all so much. I love baseball — the atmosphere, the crowd, my teammates, competing against other teams — I missed it all, and I can't wait to be back out there playing."

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Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Nick Kurtz (5) celebrates with Daniel Corona after hitting a home run during baseball practice Thursday at Baylor. The Red Raiders won back-to-back TSSAA Division II-AA state titles in 2018-19, but like all Tennessee spring sports teams, their season was called off last spring due to the coronavirus outbreak, wiping out their chance to go for a third straight championship in 2020. Monday is the first day for TSSAA spring sports contests in 2021.

Here comes the sun

Because all spring sports are played outdoors and with the availability of vaccines for COVID-19, the governing bodies for prep athletics in both Tennessee and Georgia are hopeful the seasons can be completed without interruption. TSSAA executive director Bernard Childress and his staff are already in the process of planning for the Spring Fling state championship events in Murfreesboro in May.

"It's been a difficult year for everyone, no doubt," Childress said. "There were times last spring that I sat on the edge of my bed and cried because I hurt for the kids. I told my wife that if we lost sports again, it would be the end of my career because I couldn't handle having to tell kids they couldn't play again.

"The research our staff looked at, including the University of Wisconsin study that showed two-thirds of high school age kids suffered from depression during the quarantine, we knew we had to find a way to let them play. In July we didn't actually believe that playing fall sports could be done. But we refused to give up, and just seeing the looks on the kids' faces in the fall and winter as they were able to compete, and knowing that we don't have to go through this a second year, it's a very rewarding feeling."

If there was a positive effect from last year's spring shutdown, it might be a renewed appreciation for the competition itself. Gordon Lee's Dunfee, an admittedly intense coach during baseball games, saw it early this season.

"We scrimmaged Ringgold, and we weren't playing well and I was mad," Dunfee said. "I get on the bus and am thinking about all the bad things we did when Coach (Derek) McDaniel leaned over and whispered, 'It sure is nice being back on the field.'

"Right then I realized he was right. It's nice seeing these kids having fun playing the game again. They are excited about being back out and making memories. They will remember the wins, but it's the memories of spending time with the guys that will stay with them forever."

Contact Stephen Hargis at shargis@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6293 and follow him on Twitter @StephenHargis. Contact Lindsey Young at lyoung@timesfreepress.com and follow him on Twitter @youngsports22.

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