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home : sports : sports news
May 26, 2020

3/31/2020 7:29:00 AM
It's not goodbye, it's see you later
Jeremy Mayo
Sports Editor

With each passing day, the reality of the situation grows clearer and clearer. The COVID-19 pandemic is going to have a profound impact on all of us that will extend far beyond my perch at the sports desk.

With Gov. Evers' Safer In Place executive order shuttering schools until at least April 24, the window for any potential spring prep sports season is dwindling, and the likelihood of a spring with no sports at all becomes a greater possibility.

Those are certainly not the words I wish I was writing right now, or the ones coaches, student-athletes and prep sports fans want to read, but that is the reality of the situation. The actions being taken are for the greater good. These are short-term sacrifices we must make in an effort to minimize the long-term impact of this pandemic.

They say distance makes the heart grow fonder and during this uncertain interlude, it's a great time to sit back and reflect on what we love most about sports, especially at the prep level.

For me, it's still the fact that sports at this level are still a relatively pure endeavor. There's virtually no talk of PEDs, or recruiting scandals or the latest stir caused by what some athlete posted on his or her Instagram feed. It's about the joy and love of the game.

To be sure, there are plenty of athletes who dream and aspire to continue their careers beyond high school, into the collegiate ranks and - luck and fate willing - maybe one day make it to the pros. But that's the exception rather than the rule.

Sure, occasionally you hear horror stories of how a helicopter parent badgers a coach or harasses a referee, but again that's an abnormality.

Here's what has kept me coming back over the last 16 years of covering Rhinelander sports - the complete and unbridled joy of victory. Forever engrained in my head are images like Sam Huebner getting mobbed along the first base line in 2010 after the Rhinelander Post 7 Rebels won the Wisconsin AA American Legion state title, or keeping my head on a swivel in 2014 to make sure I was out of the splash zone when the RHS girls' soccer team looked to give head coach Dan Millot an ice bath after clinching the team's first trip to the WIAA state tournament.

There's Reuben Guzik, looking glassy-eyed in 2018 as he walked off the mat as a senior at the Kohl Center in Madison, fresh off securing a fifth-place finish at the state tournament, with coach Paul Ellenbecker's arm draped around him with a look that simply said, "I'm proud of you."

I won't forget Nolan Francis' eyes, either, the night he touched the wall first in the 100-yard backstroke at the WIAA Division 2 state meet. The power and emotion in his gaze as he stared upward toward the RHS cheering section in victory is something that sticks with me.

There's the RHS track team, sprinting the length of IncredibleBank Field last May - with an embarrassingly out-of-shape me trying to keep up - to meet head coach Aaron Kraemer and a conference championship trophy that was 52 years in the making.

It's members of the Hodag girls' basketball team, in tears, hugging teammates, family members and friends after beating New London to win the team's first regional title in two decades.

Yes, it's even watching the RHS football team finally get its hands back on Gene Shepard's Bell after a 13-year drought against archrival Antigo. Admittedly, I may have even pulled the handle once or twice amid the celebration to hear the Bell's distinctive chime - so gut-wrenching in defeat, so exhilarating in victory.

It's the moments that make you shake your head and ask yourself, 'Did I really just see that?' I've seen no-hitters and triple plays, four-touchdown nights, incredible upsets and records fall.

I recall a boys' swim meet Jan. 17, 2019 between Rhinelander and Shawano. That night, the Hodags broke four Heck Pool records and took down a school record. The results sheet from that night still hangs at my desk, signed by the four swimmers who broke records that night.

I've seen triple-overtime basketball games, 14-inning baseball marathons, a football game that took a month to complete and a Wisconsin State Amateur that lasted eight extraordinary playoff holes.

I've been to the Bradley Center, the Kohl Center and Lambeau Field. I've also been soaked by near-freezing rain in Wittenberg, chilled by sub-zero temps at ski meets, pelted with snow and sleet at cross country races and sunburnt on the bleachers during baseball games.

There are special stories like that of Andy Thimm, who went from swimming neophyte to state qualifier in a matter of a few short months. He and I shared a conversation about that story recently and what it meant to him.

There are other stories like David Pokrandt's 3-pointer and Gabe White's touchdown that transcended sports and showed the goodness in humanity.

The list goes on and on - and includes way too many memorable moments to list here, but those moments are why I love what I do. It's the stories, and the acts and the people, and I've been blessed to work with so many good people over the years - from colleagues, to coaches, to players, to parents. Know that you've impacted my life in a positive manner, for which I feel blessed and grateful.



Virtually all of that is on pause for now. My vernacular right now should include fastball, drag bunt, set piece, baton exchange and birdie putt, but those words have been replaced by shelter in place, social distancing, quarantine, virtual learning and pandemic.

That's what makes what we're going through so hard right now. Times are uncertain. We're still trying to come to grips with how long, and to what extent, our lives will be impacted by this global crisis, and what exactly our lives will look like once this threat finally subsides.

The greatest fear is the unknown, and that is what we face right now.

There's a silver lining to it all, at least in my eyes. Personally, the next month or so will include significantly more time to spend with my wife and daughter, who too often get the short end of my attention, especially during the peak of the prep sports season. There will be more time to tend to things around the house and be present for those I love. Therein lies a lesson I feel we can all take to heart during these unprecedented times.

I can't begin to tell you when or how, but we will eventually return to normalcy.

When we do, sports will undoubtedly be part of the healing process, as was the case after two World Wars, after 9/11, and after countless natural disasters.

Soon enough, we'll be talking about touchdowns and home runs and 3-pointers again. We'll be, as Jim McKay famously said during the intro to ABC's Wide World of Sports, seeking out the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.

When that happens, I'll be there. I cannot exactly say how or in what capacity - if the last three weeks have taught us anything, it's that nothing in life is guaranteed nor can anything in life be taken for granted - but I long for a return to normal life and, for me, normal life revolves around the prep sports of our town.

I know I'm not the only one who shares this sentiment.

Coaches and players are still holding out hope for this spring season. I am too, though admittedly with each passing day, with each sporting event that gets canceled or postponed on the national or global scale, that optimism dims bit by bit.

In the meantime, we wait, wonder and hope. The day will come at some point, hopefully sooner rather than later.

Until then, my friends - at least from my perch atop the sports landscape that has ground to a halt - this isn't goodbye, it's see you later.

Jeremy Mayo may be reached at jeremy@rivernewsonline.com.





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