‘It All Came to A Screeching Halt’: Lost Spring Sports Season Leaves a Gap for Athletes, Families

Tennis has been part of Luke McMullen’s life since kindergarten. As a top-ranked senior at Loudoun County High School, 2020 was going to behisyear as one of the county’s best singles players and a leader on a promising team. But in the wake of COVID-19, young athletes and parents around the county are feeling the loss of the spring sports season that wasn’t.

From high school sports to rec and travel leagues, canceled seasons mean missed opportunities and a sense of loss as routines disappear and players pine for connection with teammates.

“It took a couple days to sink in,” Luke said. “After everything sunk in and I kind of processed everything, that’s when it hit the hardest.”

Luke was district runner up in boys’ singles last spring with a solid shot at winning districts and even regionals this year. And as much as his chances of singles victory, Luke is missing watching his team flourish. LCHS, once a tennis powerhouse, has been rebuilding its program again over the past several years, and parents and players saw 2020 as a potential banner year.

“We were going to be one of the best teams in the region, I think. We were all expecting to go to states. We have a lot of talented freshmen filling the spots in the lineup,” Luke said. “We felt really solid all around.”

Like many families, the McMullens initially held out hope for a shortened season, as school cancelations initially ran through spring break but were then extended through the full school year, said Luke’s mom, Suzanne McMullen.

LCHS Senior Luke McMullen missed his final season of high school tennis before moving on to play in college. Courtesy of Suzanne McMullen

The Virginia High School League is still holding out the possibility of a shortened summer season for spring league high school sports. VHSL is slated to make the call in May, according to a March 24 press release from the organization. But for seniors and their parents, the loss of that final sports season comes on top of so many other missed milestones, including prom and a traditional June graduation ceremony.

“I had a moment where I was like, ‘He’s a senior—our only child. We’re going to miss a big milestone.’ Selfishly, I was sitting there crying. We don’t get to take pictures and have a graduation party,” Suzanne McMullen said. “On one level, the slowdown has been kind of nice, but on the other hand, we were really looking forward to it for him. … I guess we’ve just dealt with the grief stage.”

For the McMullens, one saving grace is that Luke’s college plans are already confirmed. He’ll study and play NCAA tennis at Salisbury University in Salisbury, MD, next year. But with the 2020 college season canceled and the NCAA offering an extra year of eligibility to athletes, returning college seniors may impact opportunities for younger players.

For now, Luke, who usually plays tennis year-round through the United States Tennis Association programs, is working to stay fit while tennis is mostly on hold. All public and high school courts are locked down, although he manages to hit occasionally on private neighborhood courts. Whatever VHSL decides, he says, his hope is that the LCHS team will get together and play, even if it’s in an unofficial capacity, before seniors move on.

“At the end of the day when you look at the big picture, you can’t really control what’s happened. I try not to worry about something I can’t control,” Luke said. “For now, I’ve been trying to look at the options I have. I’ve been talking to the guys, and we said once this is all over, we need to meet up in the summer and just hit because our time was cut short.”

For the Heaney/Santoli family in Lovettsville, spring usually means weekends on the ballfield for this softball loving clan. StepsistersAlaina Santoli andAshlyn Heaney, the oldest of the family’s five kids, play on separate travel teams through the Western Loudoun Girls Softball League. Alaina was also scheduled to make her high school debut as a freshman on the junior varsity team at Woodgrove High School. The spring that should have been full of high school games and travel tournaments for Alex Heaney and her husband Mark.

Ashlyn Heaney, 13, pitches for the Loudoun Liberty Black travel softball team. [Courtesy of Alex Heaney]

In addition to being a devoted softball mom, Alex Heaney is a board member at WLGSL. After careful consideration, she says, the league made the decision to cancel the season fairly early.

“We’ve been trying to be very proactive,” Heaney said. “It stinks to be in limbo as a parent, it stinks to be in limbo as a coach. I’m grateful that we made those decisions…just because everything is unknown.”

And while the lost season has been tough on the girls, they’re making the best of a hard situation.

“We’re really fortunate in the sense that the kids have been really good about getting out and running around the property. We have softball nets and they have their equipment. They’re able to get in some practice time,” Alex Heaney said. “It’s not the same, but Alaina and Ashlyn have each other so at least we get some sort of upkeep on their skill level.”

For the Heaneys and many other sports-loving families, moving from daily practices and weekends full of tournaments to an essentially empty calendar has been an adjustment. Alaina’s travel team has mostly been together since third grade, and teammates have become like family.

“They’ve all stayed together up to this point. The parents are like family, the kids are like family. They’ve had the same coaches the entire time. They’re very close knit,” Heaney said.

Last spring when both girls played travel ball, Heaney and Mark would often find themselves on separate fields with each girl while monitoring the other daughter’s game on the GameChanger app. And while COVID closures mean more free time, it leaves a big hole in their world.

“There’s something about watching your kid play sports—it’s just fun. I love softball, and Mark has really grown to also love softball,” Heaney said. “We both love to watch the girls do what they love.”

The love of the game and a sense of routine are also creating a sense of loss for the Dattilo family of Purcellville. Older daughter Sophie, a junior at Loudoun Valley High School, earned a spot as co-captain of the school tennis team while younger sister Charlotte, a freshman at LVHS, had achieved a major goal on her travel volleyball team as the season was abruptly cut short.

For Sophie, spring tennis was something to look forward to as she managed a heavy academic load and the pressure so many Loudoun students feel during their junior year.

“I was really excited for the season,” Sophie said. “It was a part of my year, which was such a pivotal year academically, that was a real bright spot… Tennis was something that I was looking forward to have a place where it’s fun, something extracurricular. Having it taken away along with the rest of my year was just disheartening. Honestly it’s just sad.”

For the Dattilo family of Purcellville, losing the busy routine of club and high school sports leaves a big hole. Older sister Sophie is co-captain of the tennis team at Loudoun Valley High School, and younger sister Charlotte plays travel volleyball for Shenandoah Surge [Courtesy of Jeanne Dattilo]

Sophie says she doesn’t have NCAA tennis in mind, but was looking forward to contributing to her team as a player and a leader. She worked hard during the off-season to raise her team ranking from eighth to third this season and is missing that important sense of connection that team sports offer.

“I have a doubles partner who I love so much,” she said. “We play so well together. I would love to play any over the summer, even if VHSL doesn’t set up something official.”

Meanwhile Charlotte Dattilo had just received some great news near the end of her club volleyball season. She earned a key first-string defensive role for her team, the coveted libero position, just as the season was canceled.

“I played one tournament as libero and I had so much fun … and then all of that got shut down,” Charlotte said.

But for so many young athletes, the human connections are often what players miss most.

“I really do miss my teammates. I’m close with a lot of them and my coaches too,” Charlotte said. “It’s been really hard not seeing them as much as I used to.”

For sports families, moving from a chock-full schedule to an empty calendar can be tough. March and April would have been packed with tennis matches and volleyball tournaments for the Dattilos. They’re taking it in stride but the loss of routine, the sometimes stressful but often fun groove of carpools and tournaments that becomes second nature for sports families, is a little disorienting says the girls’ mom Jeanne Dattilo.

Like many Loudoun families, the Dattilos had a pre-COVID crazy night every week. In their case, it was Wednesdays, with Sophie heading straight to an SAT prep class after tennis practice and Charlotte traveling to West Virginia for volleyball with dad Ken. Wednesday, March 11 was a typical crazy night, and the family got home for dinner around 8:45 p.m. Around 5 a.m. the next day, parents around Loudoun were notified that school was canceled for what would eventually be the full academic year.

“It was just a really busy night. We did all that, and then the next day it was just gone,” Jeanne said. “It all came to a screeching halt”

And while the new normal is quiet and relaxing, the Dattilos would go back to the busy in a heartbeat.

“It’s just been sad. Even in the busiest times, I still loved it. I loved watching Sophie play tennis. I loved watching Charlotte play volleyball. I liked the time in the car that we got to talk…It was busy, but it was working well and it was fun,” Jeanne said. “I miss seeing them thrive in their element.”

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