May 7, 2021

High school athletes savor their sports even more this spring

Luke Leverton of Seton Catholic High School in Richmond says “it’s the best feeling in the world” to be playing baseball again this spring. (Submitted photo)

Luke Leverton of Seton Catholic High School in Richmond says “it’s the best feeling in the world” to be playing baseball again this spring. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

Everything feels right again, even a little more special.

The warmth of the sun, the laughter with friends, the feel of a soft breeze, the cheers of the fans and—after all the hard work and practices—the opportunity to compete and be together as a team.

All those gifts disappeared in an instant last year for high school athletes across the country who play spring sports—one more loss from the COVID-19 crisis that ended many of the joys of life that people had taken for granted.

This spring, that joy has returned for many student-athletes, including four from across the archdiocese who share what it means to them to be participating again in the sport they love.

“What happened last year was definitely an awful feeling,” says Luke Leverton, about that lost season of 2020 that was halted before it even began.

So the senior at Seton Catholic High School in Richmond has savored this spring season all the more since he stepped onto his school’s baseball diamond and stood on the pitcher’s mound for the first game of his last season.

“It’s the best feeling in the world to be playing,” he says. “There’s the smell of the grass, the feel of the dirt, the sound of the ball hitting the catcher’s mitt, the sound of the bat hitting the ball—even just picking up the ball. It means so much to me.

“I find so much joy in pitching. When I walk out on the diamond and get on the mound, I get really excited. It’s just being in the moment of the game—competing and being out there with your best friends. It’s such a blessing to be out there.”

In one of Seton’s games this year, Luke struck out 17 batters, setting a school record. It’s the kind of pitching dominance that has earned him a baseball scholarship to continue playing at Miami University in Ohio. Still, he’s in no hurry to end his last season at the school that has shaped his life in so many ways.

“I’m enjoying it a lot,” says Luke, a member of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Richmond. “I’ve been at Seton since kindergarten. We talk about God every day. We pray before every class. It’s always calming to talk to God every day. It’s definitely had an impact on my life.”

‘We’ve made so many memories together’

For Abigail Hill, the worst part of losing last year’s tennis season was that she didn’t get to share that experience with her teammates, especially the then-seniors who had become her close friends.

“It was heartbreaking,” she says. “I wished I had that time with my teammates. I was just sad.”

Now that she’s a senior on the team at Father Michael Shawe Memorial High School in Madison, Abigail has kept one priority in mind even as she strives to lead the squad to a winning season, even as she works to go deeper as an individual in the state tournament.

“I’m trying to make the most of every practice and every match because COVID is still so unpredictable. I want to be able to look back and have special memories from practices, matches—just the little things with my teammates.

“I adore my teammates. My teammates are what keep me together. We rely on each other. We support each other. We’ve got each other’s back in matches and in school.”

She says that’s especially true of her fellow senior, Phoebe Grote, who she first met when they were in the first grade at Pope John XXIII School in Madison.

“She and I have been best friends since elementary school,” says Abigail, a member of Prince of Peace Parish in Madison. “We’ve made so many memories together.”

Abigail’s favorite memories from this year start with a team ritual.

“The most special moments are right before the match when we get into our huddle, and we pray and talk strategy. I always love those moments. Then during the matches, we talk to each other and pick each other up.”

Those moments reflect the experience she has had in the Catholic schools in Madison ever since she began her education as a pre-kindergarten student when she was 3.

“My four years at Shawe have been really great. I have a good support system at home and school. All my coaches are amazing,” says Abigail, who also played volleyball and basketball. “I love the education I’ve had. I’m excited for my future, but I know I’m going to miss this school a lot.”

‘Now, I love it’

Emily Vasquez laughs when she recalls her first experience of running track in high school.

As someone who likes to keep busy, Emily thought that even with her schoolwork and her involvement in the spring musical, there was still enough time to fit in another activity in her freshman year at Father Thomas Scecina Memorial High School in Indianapolis.

So she decided to join the track team, focusing on becoming a sprinter in races that would be over in a flash. Yet on the first day of practice, her coach appraised her sprinting speed and made a different suggestion.

“He thought I’d be good at distance,” Emily says with a laugh. “The first day, we ran five miles! I was tired. I was in pain, and I was thinking, How do these people do this? But I kept coming back, and now I love it.”

That first year was so much fun that Emily looked forward to running as a sophomore last year. Then the track season was stopped in its tracks by the pandemic.

“I was home every day,” she says, the low tone in her voice revealing how hard it was for her to not be with her teammates. “I was not motivated to run, not motivated to do anything.

“Last year taught me to be grateful for whatever I get and whatever I have this season.”

Track continues to be one of Emily’s favorite experiences in her junior year at Scecina, where she is also a soccer player, a student ambassador, a member of the student council and part of the musical’s cast.

“Track brings people together,” says Emily, a member of Holy Spirit Parish in Indianapolis. “I like that it’s a co-ed sport. There are so many boys and girls I wouldn’t know and talk to if it wasn’t for track. I also like that it’s a team sport where you can lean on each other. If you’re not running, you’re cheering on your teammate.

“And in track, it’s only you who can get you to your goals. It’s up to you how good you are. I think that’s really cool.”

Being there through the struggles and triumphs

One of the most revealing views of a student-athlete—or anyone—comes from the way he or she handles disappointment and adversity.

Gavin Caswell was so looking forward to his first track meet of his senior season at Our Lady of Providence High School in Clarksville.

He had enjoyed his freshman year on the team, throwing the shot put and the discus. It was a year when he benefitted from his coach’s reward system of getting a milkshake when he set a “personal best” in his events—a reward offered to anyone on the team. Yet far beyond his preference for a chocolate milkshake, Gavin savored the feeling of competing, improving his technique and being with his teammates. And he couldn’t wait for the seasons ahead.

Yet injuries prevented him from competing in his sophomore year. And COVID-19 ended his junior season.

“Everything turned upside down. I was really disappointed,” he says. “But it was for every sport, every school. I put it in perspective, and I prayed for every school.”

As he prepared for the first meet of his senior season, he also worked to help the younger members of the team improve their techniques. Then he gave them a different kind of lesson in leadership at the first meet.

“I was pretty disappointed in my performance,” says Gavin, a member of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in New Albany. “However, I was very proud of my teammates because almost all of them broke their personal records. I was glad they were having a good time.”

Since then, his season has taken a turn for the better. At the same time for him, his sport is more than the challenge of lifting the shot put and discus and throwing them as far as he can. It’s also the joy of lifting the spirits of his teammates.

“When the throwers get done with our events, we cheer the others on. We want them to see we’re with them through their struggles, their triumphs.”

The struggles of losing last year’s spring sports season have given way this year to the triumphs of the human spirit. †

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