If one statement had to be selected to describe how senior student-athletes must’ve felt when they knew their spring sports seasons weren’t going to be played this year, then Elliana Mandli put forth some contending words.
“It just kind of hit me like a bus,” the senior goalkeeper for the St. Joseph girls soccer team said. “I didn’t know what to do, because I knew that anything wouldn’t be able to change the fact that my senior season was gone.”
For Mandli’s team, that season held a world of promise.
While every student-athlete was deeply stung by the cancellation of spring sports due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the seven seniors on the St. Joseph girls soccer team experienced an especially sharp jab.
As sophomores, those seven players helped the Lancers win the WIAA Division-4 state championship. Their bid at a repeat ended with a loss to eventual state champion Racine Prairie in the sectional finals last season, but with all those returning seniors and another strong group of underclassmen, St. Joseph was gunning for another state title this season.
They didn’t get the chance. Instead, that loss to Prairie would be the last time they played together, something not imaginable at the time.
“Right after I found out, it didn’t feel real,” St. Joseph senior Elizabeth Alia, a team captain, said of the season being cancelled. “I knew things were going to be delayed, but it never crossed my mind that things would be cancelled, that our last game together would be last year against Prairie. That never was even a thought in my head.
“The loss wasn’t as devastating, just knowing, ‘Oh, we still have senior year. We know what we’re capable of, we know what the (Metro Classic) Conference is going to look like.’”
Senior Stella Harrington, a team captain with Alia, said the expectations were high.
“We were all looking forward to the season so much, because we had such a strong team coming in,” Harrington said. “We were gaining some new freshmen who have been playing together for a while, and we just had a really strong team this year.
“So we had expectations of maybe going to state again and winning it all.”
That came to a screeching halt on March 12, when the WIAA announced that the boys and girls basketball seasons — in their sectional finals and State Tournament, respectively — had been cancelled. In the process, the start of the spring sports season was delayed.
Like players all over the state, the Lancers stayed ready for the start of some type of season. On April 21, however, the worst fears were confirmed when the WIAA cancelled spring sports for the rest of 2020.
“We remained hopeful throughout the process, and we truly were — from a coaching perspective — communicating with the players with the expectation that there would come a point in time where we would be able to play,” St. Joseph coach Gino Alia said. “... We just held out hope that something would be salvaged, even if it could be a couple weeks and then get into a tournament setting and then be able to prove what you could do.
“But time just ran out.”
So rather than preparing for a State Tournament run — it would’ve been this Thursday through Saturday at Uihlein Soccer Park in Milwaukee — St. Joseph’s seven seniors had to accept that their high school soccer careers were over.
Although that isn’t technically true.
The WIAA allowed for an extended 30-day contact period, beginning in July, for spring sports, something that would at least allow athletes to get in some competition. Gino Alia said St. Joseph has been in talks with other schools about arranging some type of play, targeting three to five games.
He said he wants to use that time for the underclassmen to play with the seniors and gain some knowledge from them. In this case, though, it’s also a chance for the seven seniors — who’ve kept communication going via group text — to put the uniforms on one last time together.
And even though it’ll just be for fun, it has meaning to them.
“We all need to play that last game knowing it’s our last game and knowing we left it all on the field,” Elizabeth Alia said.
In the meantime, each player said this situation has allowed them to experience personal growth.
“As time went by, I began to realize that soccer wasn’t the most important thing in my life,” Mandli said. “I have other priorities, meaning like getting ready for college, having a good mindset to finish the semester strong.”
It’s a group of seniors that accomplished a lot on the field and even when they couldn’t play.
“They’re a multi-talented, an intelligent, caring group of young ladies who I’ve been fortunate enough to see even before high school,” Gino Alia said. “What was unique about them and what I tell people is unique about this group is their collective passion to the sport, their dedication to each other and their drive to succeed.
“But in a fashion where they always had fun and got the most out of every experience.”