Everyone's spring sports season was upended in March by COVID-19. However, first-year head coaches were affected even more than most.
Hesperia softball coach Rick Martin, who took over for Doug Bolles, never got a chance to see what his imprint on the team looked like in game action. He, like all other first-year coaches, will have to wait for 2021 to see what that's like.
(Oceana County had one other coach set for their first season this spring, Pentwater baseball coach Ralph Baker, but attempts to reach him for this story were unsuccessful.)
"I predicted us to have a really good season," Martin said. "It's been really tough. Going in and being a new coach, I had all kinds of expectations, and the rug was pulled out from under us."
Martin isn't by any means new to the sport, having assisted for the Panthers' program before; he said he's coached some of the parents of the current Hesperia players. He was also head JV coach in 2019 before ascending to the top job last winter.
Spring sports practices began March 9, and it was the following Friday that every sport was sidelined, not to return this school year.
The Panthers had fewer seniors than many teams, so not as many athletes were denied their final varsity seasons at Hesperia as at some other schools. However, Hesperia did lose out on the final varsity campaign for three graduated seniors, including top pitcher Lynnsey Tinkham.
Hesperia projected to be junior-strong in 2020, although one of those juniors, Allison Homfeld, wasn't going to be able to play even if there had been a season. She had issues with a bone spur that, Martin said, even has her fall volleyball season in doubt. Filling Homfeld's shoes was slated to be Emma Joppich, a sophomore who was likely to see a lot of innings in the circle.
"Going from JV to varsity, it's tough on those girls," Martin said. "(Joppich) was nervous. She's a good kid and she would've done very well."
The team had done a good amount of off-season work, which had created even more optimism that the team could have a shot at repeating as district champions. Even over the winter, the girls had been hitting and working out to stay in softball shape.
"We were working out in December on Sundays, hitting, pitching," Martin said. "I had a weight program going and had good turnout from the girls. We had 14 (players) on the varsity and 17 at the JV level. So we have a good crop of girls coming."
When COVID-19 hit, Martin said, he purchased some softball equipment — hitting nets, tees, and softballs — so his players could continue working on their games at home. However, attempts to implement what Martin called a more aggressive style of play will have to wait for next spring.
In the meantime, the team has kept in touch, Martin said, through Facebook Messenger, where they all have a group chat going; he estimated that he's on there "about every other day". Players have shared videos of their swings with one another and with coaches to compare notes.
This month, with Michigan's stay-at-home order now lifted, the hope was that players would be able to gather in some fashion, and perhaps play in some travel tournaments. Martin also said that as soon as it's permitted, he hopes to see his team in the weight room.
"We'll be on the field as soon as we get released," Martin said. "We'll be doing weights, because I'm big into weights. We'll get stronger and faster."
It's all in service of what could be a very strong 2021 team. Martin said he expects to have 12 seniors on next year's squad, many of whom were big parts of the 2019 district champions. Martin said he expects to have so many good players, in fact, that some juniors may have to play on the JV level.
"We'll have a lot of good ballplayers," Martin said. "We're going to have to have tryouts...It'll be a challenge to find room for as many as possible."