High hopes vanish with spring sports shutdown
With eight seniors returning – including last year’s Mississippi Valley Conference Player of the Year – the Tomah High School softball team had high hopes heading into the 2020 spring sports season.
Tomah showed flashes of brilliance on the diamond during a 2019 season that saw the Lady Timberwolves post a 5-7 mark in MVC action.
The season came with steady improvement as well, with Tomah advancing to a Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association Division 1 regional final, before suffering a tough 3-1 loss to defending state champ Sun Prairie.
Sun Prairie, coached by Tomah graduate Jamie Olson, went on to finish runner-up at state last year, which likely gave the Lady Timberwolves some confidence heading into this season.
But just two or three practices into its 2020 campaign, news broke that the season would be delayed and possibly canceled after Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers issued a Safer At Home mandate which closed all of the state’s public and private schools.
A month later, the Lady Timberwolves learned the WIAA decided to pull the plug, leaving high school sports teams across the state without a 2020 sports season.
Tomah head coach Dan Wall said his team held a couple of practices and participated in some open gyms before news of the delay broke in mid-March.
“We were hoping to be back after two weeks, but that last practice you could tell – the kids knew,” offered Wall.
Wall kept in touch with his players through video conferencing early in the shutdown and tried to remain optimistic, but when Evers extended the mandate and closed school for the remainder of the year, the writing was on the wall.
“I think for some, it was a relief – it gave them some closure,” he said.
Some closure, maybe, but the closure they had been hoping for – a run at a conference title – was not to be.
“We were hoping to be in the top three,” sad Wall of his team’s goals for the 2020 season.
“I knew Onalaska would be favored with the three-time pitcher of the year (Sarah Kraus) returning. And Logan was sneaky good with the Davis girls, who are very good athletes,” he continued. “But we have a lot of kids who are seasoned and we felt we had a chance to crack that and be in the hunt for a conference title.”
With 2019 MVC Player of the Year Josie Mathison returning for her senior season, Tomah was poised for a title run.
In three years with the Lady Timberwolves, Mathison – a three-time All-MVC first team center fielder – compiled a .476 batting average, with 20 home runs, 19 doubles and three triples.
She drove in 61 runs, scored 96 runs and stole 57 bases in 58 attempts, all while building a stellar slugging percentage of .826.
“Josie obviously was our leader by example. Everybody looked up to Josie for three years,” said Wall. “She always treats others with respect and she’s very humble.”
Humble may be an understatement.
Mathison would have been chasing some career records this season, but her focus was firmly on the success of her team.
“I was looking forward to having a another year and the team getting better. We had a few good players coming up, too, to I was excited about that and looking forward to the team getting better,” she offered.
“We had a really good chance of playing with Onalaska and Holmen,” Mathison continued. “When I found out, I was really sad. It’s different because I really didn’t think of the possibility of not playing until they said it – then it was really hard.”
Mathison said she didn’t even think about missing out on a chance to set some personal records.
“I was more looking forward to having one more year with the team and the coaches,” she said.
Savannah Murphy was set to have a solid senior season as well.
The senior shortstop posted some big stats last season, finishing with a .311 batting average while driving in 18 runs and belting eight doubles.
“I was looking forward to playing Onalaska, because I’ve always wanted to beat them and I felt that could happen this year. It was a big goal,” said Murphy.
“I was looking forward to spending time with my teammates, and now I can’t even do that,” she continued. “It’s devastating because it’s our last year. A lot of people (before the season was canceled) were saying they couldn’t wait to see us play. Then we got the news that we weren’t going to have a season and it broke my heart.”
While competition is in Murphy’s blood, she’ll miss more than just being on the field.
“I’ll definitely miss the bond with my teammates and the rush I felt from playing softball,” she said. “I’ll miss the excitement – my teammates cheering – that excitement.”
Mathison echoed those thoughts.
“I’ll miss my teammates and the atmosphere of it,” she said. “The team was very supportive. Everyone was so positive – it’s a good team to be a part of.”
In addition to Mathison and Murphy, Lady Timberwolves Anna Ott and Alexis Stockel and four-year team members Morgan Arch, Jenny Lane and Allie Kemp were expected to make contributions on the field for Tomah this season.
And don’t forget senior Alexis Smiezek, who as team manager has been an integral part of the program for the past four seasons.
“She’s such a go-to kid. Alexis always has the team in mind – she’d bring treats, make signs and inspiring messages. She does a lot for me,” offered Wall.
“She’s involved in a lot. If you want a kid who is involved in school, it’s Alexis. She’s special, she’s awesome and I think everybody on the team would agree,” he added. “She’ll be as hard to replace as nay four-year player I’ve had.”
While Smiezek didn’t see any action on the field, she’ll miss softball just as much as her teammates – if not more.
“I was really looking forward to this year. We were going to have some amazing senior athletes that were going to leave everything on the field. Win or lose, I knew that everyone would give it their all, and that we would make great memories along the way,” she offered.
“I was devastated when I learned we wouldn't have a season. I think everyone looks forward to their senior year of sports; it's your last chance to leave your mark on the program and to make countless memories with your teammates,” Smiezek continued. “I managed the team, so I won't be missing out on physically playing softball. What I will miss most this year will be the bus rides to games. There was such an electric energy, and I always looked forward to coming up with ‘punny’ snacks for the girls.”
The 2020 version of the Tomah softball team – like many teams across the state – has been robbed of a chance to reach its potential and Wall knows how much that hurts.
“I feel so bad for them. I’ve played enough ball, coached enough ball, but they never really got a chance to feel what it’s like to play their final game,” he said.
“They never got a chance to feel what it was like to have that last at-bat,” continued Wall. “I’m going to miss just being around them and all their different personalities and how they mix together. They’ll be very missed, but they’ve definitely left their mark on the program.”
And Wall is certain this year’s senior class has laid the groundwork for future success.
“I hope the younger kids understand what they did well and try to emulate them,” he said.
“We’ve got a pretty good little pipeline with next year’s seniors, so hopefully they can step up and do something next year,” added Wall. “Hopefully, they do something for this year’s seniors by honoring what they have lost.”