WEST ORANGE, NJ ‚ The West Orange High School baseball team was one day away from its first pre-season scrimmage in March when classes were halted.
That team will never take the field this spring now that the NJSIAA has canceled the spring sports season in conjunction with Gov. Phil Murphy’s announcement Monday that schools would be closed for the remainder of the 2020-2021 school year.
“To have the season canceled, as we drew closer to yesterday it was expected,” said West Orange baseball coach Stephen Zichella. “It’s something we felt was going to happen, but when it finally did, it just still stings; it still hurts. It is crushing not to be able to compete.”
It is an especially poignant loss for the three seniors in the West Orange program.
“Mark Mincolelli, Julian Lee and Milton Dauber are our three seniors,” said Zichella. “They are a special group. They were destined to be great leaders and captains, and they were fully committed to baseball since they were kids. The passion they have given to our program is something we are forever grateful for.
"It is a loss as a coach not to see them suit up and play their last game. All three of them are destined for great things. They will be better for this. We talk about using adversity to shape ourselves.”
The news of the season’s cancellation packed an emotional punch when it became official Monday morning.
“I had a couple of kids reach out to me very emotional; they were very upset,” said Zichella. “It was an emotional day yesterday. It was heartbreaking as a coach to get the official word.”
Zichella and his coaching staff have been making a concerted effort to maintain communication with the team during the period of limbo between when the school first closed in March and this week.
“Our team parents came to us and said, ‘Coach, we need your positive influence to talk to the boys because they are very upset,’" he said. "As a high school student, they had never experienced anything like this. The coaches have tried to be a sense of comfort and optimism. That was a call of duty for us. It has been needed.
“We have a Google Classroom and interact with kids on a regular basis. We post things and we have an e-coaching platform. It’s really opened up a paradigm shift for how we can coach and it has really enhanced our experiences. All our coaches have been interactive with the players. The last five weeks, we have had former players, college coaches and recruiters address the team.”
Zichella, who is also the wrestling coach at West Orange, said that rather than dwelling on the disappointment of a lost spring, he intends to focus on the next step and look to the future--one that he says looks bright with a large group of talented juniors in the program.
“We are hoping to plan for a commitment to the summer,” said Zichella. "We are awaiting local and state politicians and what they will allow in terms of opening fields and allowing sports to be played. We are just hoping there is some kind of summer we can salvage. We would have our seniors play in the summer if we can have a summer season. That would bring us some kind of closure."
Although the Mountaineers typically prepare for the best, Zichella also urges the team to be prepared for the worst as well.
“It’s okay to hope, and there are really greater tragedies than this," the coach said. "There are people that have lost loved ones. Baseball is so important to all of us, but there is a future for that. We don’t want to do anything that will contradict us being a healing society.”
The NJSIAA released an official statement following Murphy's announcement expressing disappointment "for the thousands of New Jersey student-athletes who will be unable to compete this spring."
"While we remained hopeful to the end, and left open every possibility, competition simply is not feasible given the circumstances," the organization said. “The last few weeks have been heartbreaking on many levels, from the tragic loss of life, to thousands battling the virus, to millions who have suffered emotional and economic loss. It’s been a harrowing time for everyone, and we know our student-athletes are extremely disappointed.
“That said, these unfortunate circumstances may have put an intriguing challenge in the path of our young people. As New Jersey’s own Vince Lombardi once said, ‘It's not whether you get knocked down, it's whether you get up.’ We’re confident all our kids will get back up and stand tall.
“The NJSIAA will continue developing plans for the potential restarting of scholastic sports during the fall season. Additional information related both to the summer recess and fall will be shared at a later date.”