Over the course of a dual-sport coaching career that will enter its 20th year in the fall, Missy Smith has had to help guide teams through adversity time and time again.
But nothing could have prepared her or anyone else for what has come this spring.
On Tuesday, the West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission announced the cancellation of spring sports, leaving athletes across the Mountain State without seasons to play and teams without goals to chase. It deprived tight-knit groups the opportunity to compete and deprived seniors of their last hurrah on the field.
“There’s nothing really that you can say, everybody feels the same way,” Smith said. “You say as many words as you need to express how you feel and you tell them how much you miss them. But I expect big things when they leave us. Some of them are going on to play in college and I expect big things on the field but greater things off the field. They have lives to go on to.”
A group of five seniors had a chance to pull off something extremely rare this season — going 4 for 4 in terms of state championships. Led by senior hurlers Delani Buckner and Presley McGee, both of whom have pitched since they were freshmen, the Huskies were the preseason favorite to do just that.
Buckner, the 2018 Gatorade State Player of the Year and last year’s Co-State Player of the Year by the state sportswriters association, had an opportunity to cap a stellar career. She would’ve entered this season with a career record of 52-3, a 0.53 career ERA and 664 strikeouts in 343 innings pitched.
But her first thoughts weren’t about stats.
“I’ve spent the last couple of days reflecting on the past three years and how great they’ve been,” Buckner said. “I’ve had such great teammates and coaches and I’ll always have their support — friendships formed that we’ll have for the rest of our lives. You look forward to that senior year because it’s your turn to be a leader.
“It’s been amazing that each year we’ve been able to make it to the state tournament and perform well and finish on top. But it’s not even a state tournament run but those times at the hotel and playing games with each other. It’s frustrating because we didn’t get knocked off and you don’t know what could’ve been. We would’ve definitely given our best. It was going to be a special year for sure.”
For Buckner, McGee and fellow seniors Jess Canterbury, Rylee Nottingham and Aly Miller, Tuesday’s announcement that corresponded with Gov. Jim Justice’s decision to cancel school for the rest of the year, ended a prep tenure that was rocky to say the least.
Members of this year’s senior class at Hoover entered their freshman year just after the massive flooding of the summer of 2016. Their ninth-grade year was spent during half-day sessions at Elkview Middle School, and since then they’ve spent their days in portables after the old Herbert Hoover High school was destroyed.
Last Saturday, the team held what they called a “Proom,” a Zoom session in which the players dressed up for prom, one the seniors didn’t get to have.
It speaks to the closeness this class has formed through adversity, and Buckner said she and her classmates will enter adult life with a heightened level of mental toughness.
“I think it has made our class tough to know that we went through a lot,” Buckner said. “We didn’t lose sight of our goals even though at the same time we were hurting at times. Riley Nottingham’s home was flooded and for her to have to deal with school and softball all at the same time and for her to know she has the support of her teammates and coaches — I know going forward there’s a lot we can take from this.”
What won’t be taken from the team is a three-year span that would rival any put together in state history.
The Huskies would’ve entered this year having gone 69-1 over their last 70 games, dating back to the state championship game in 2017. That included a perfect 33-0 season in 2018.
And though this class will not have a chance to extend that level of excellence, the mark it left on the program is undeniable.
“It’s hard to come into a successful program and be impact players as freshmen and they did that,” Smith said. “They were contributing factors to that first state tournament and championship and that’s hard to do anywhere, but when it’s a successful program and you’ve got kids in the system for years and you’ve groomed them to keep progressing, it’s even harder. But as soon as I got them on that first day, I knew they were special.”