Fall Sports Update: Central Ohio athletes doing their part to ensure season

Scott Hennen
ThisWeek group
Hilliard Bradley quarterback A.J. Mirgon also was a key player for the Jaguars boys basketball team, which reached a regional final before the season was cut short in March because of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. "It's made me realize that working hard and having the opportunity to compete can come and go so easily," Mirgon said.

When Bexley City Schools announced July 30 that it was suspending extracurricular activities, senior Stefanie Lehman wanted no part of it.

Preparing for her fourth year with the girls tennis program, Lehman was afraid her final season might be erased by the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, just as it had done to spring sports across the state.

Lions girls tennis coach Shelby Cheses held a meeting that afternoon and asked the players if they wanted to practice one last time. They all did.

"It was a strong moment for us because we all thought it might be our last day," Lehman said. "Everyone was pretty sad and disappointed, and that showed how much the girls cared about playing this fall.

"I think we have all played on this team for so long. It's my senior season, and I would like to keep going. As a team, everyone enjoys coming out here and playing each day."

Bexley later reversed course and allowed practices to resume Aug. 4. Similar scenarios have played out throughout Ohio as communities and school districts grapple with mitigating the spread of the coronavirus.

For high school athletes, many of whom lost spring and summer seasons, a spark has been reignited after months of loss and sacrifice. Whether it's wearing masks or socially distancing at least 6 feet from teammates during practices, they're willing to do whatever it takes to compete this fall.

One such athlete is Hilliard Bradley senior quarterback A.J. Mirgon, who experienced the disappointment firsthand during the early days of the pandemic as a member of the boys basketball team. The Jaguars' season was halted in March, one win from their first regional championship.

"It's made me realize that working hard and having the opportunity to compete can come and go so easily," said Mirgon, a starting forward whose team finished 25-2 after defeating Walnut Ridge 59-32 in a Division I regional semifinal. "It has helped me work harder because I know that there's a chance that I may not get to play again. I made sure that I trained hard enough that I would be ready to compete the best that I could."

The loss of spring sports was on the minds of Olentangy Berlin boys golfers when they began this season, according to coach Andrew Fraley. The non-contact sports of boys and girls golf, girls tennis, girls volleyball and boys and girls cross country were the first to receive approval to compete, and it enabled the athletes to put the new sports safety protocols to the test.

"We were one of the first sports to start and if we don't cover the protocols, we could ruin it for the other sports," Fraley said. "The microscope was on us.

"These kids saw what happened in the spring when the seniors lost their sports, their prom and their graduation. Our kids didn't want to see the season not happen because they didn't wear masks. I don't think anyone wants this, but the kids were so excited to get out there and play that they are willing to do it."

At Grandview, Hannah Yochem saw her junior track and field season get canceled after she had competed in the Division III state meet in all four relay events as a sophomore. She also plays for the girls basketball and girls volleyball teams, and she thought about the loss of track as she prepared for her senior volleyball season.

"With sports getting canceled, we came in not knowing how things would work out (for volleyball) or what was the plan," Yochem said. "That's hard on a team. As a three-sport athlete, sports have had a big impact on me at Grandview. It's hard coming into a season and not knowing what's happening.

"Going through the school year and not being certain about whether you are going to have basketball or track is tough, but we're doing everything we can. We follow the recommended guidelines and me and my teammates are taking extra precautions. We also have been wearing masks away from practice and we're social distancing. You try to stay away from others and be really careful."

Hilliard Davidson senior Kyle Pepera lost his baseball season last spring and didn't want football to suffer the same fate.

"We were probably about two weeks away from our first (baseball) scrimmage and it got cut short," said Pepera, a quarterback and defensive back. "We were all devastated, especially the seniors, but also everybody on the varsity.

"Once we got the word that football was coming and football was right around the corner, we all got together and we were all super-excited. Once the shock wore off, we were definitely ready."

Olentangy wide receiver Caleb Gossett made the most of his downtime to ensure he was ready for the fall, gaining 15 pounds while working out.

"We had nothing to do (this spring) besides a little bit of schoolwork. We'd get out and run routes every single day, right after we got done with our stuff," Gossett said. "Our new quarterback (Kaden Doup) is one of my best friends, so every single time we can, with the fields closed, we've been going to grass, running routes and getting my timing down, doing a lot of footwork drills and everything I could to get ready."

Like golf, tennis lends itself to social distancing. Lehman doesn't wear a mask during matches, but she puts one on going to and from events and during introductions when players are in closer proximity with their opponents.

She and her teammates are determined to do their part during the pandemic.

"(Wearing a mask is) especially important at practice because we're so sweaty and I think there's a higher chance of spreading it," Lehman said. "Through this, I have learned a lot (about) how to interact with people safely. We have to make sure we're keeping our distance, but we're also making sure we enjoy ourselves. We can't turn our lives off. We have to continue to be able to do what we want, but just make sure we're doing it in a safer, better way."

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Grandview Heights senior Hannah Yochem, whose track and field season was canceled this spring, has been preparing for volleyball amid the uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. Yochem and her teammates have been following the new protocols such as wearing masks and social distancing. "You try to stay away from others and be really careful," she said.