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WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN: For Brock’s Tonips and Kizer, more than a game was taken away

The "What Might Have Been" feature series is Big Country Preps' effort to celebrate area athletes who have seen their seasons affected by the COVID-19 outbreak. The series will continue through June 15 or until the UIL rules that high school athletics statewide may resume.  If you have a suggested story for the "What might have been" series, please contact Big Country Preps at Evan.Ren@BigCountryPreps.com.

Kelsi Tonips missed much of last season and part of this season with a separated shoulder. Then just as the Brock senior third baseman and pitcher was working her way back into the lineup, the 2020 softball season was suspended indefinitely by the UIL because of the COVID-19, or coronavirus, pandemic.

The earliest athletic contests can return is May 4. The spring sports seasons may not restart at all.

“Softball is not just a game for me. It’s a big part of my life that was taken away abruptly,” said Tonips, who has played since she was 6 years old.

At least Tonips, who signed to play collegiately with Tyler Junior College, plans to play softball again. Lauren Kizer, a Brock senior pitcher and outfielder, plans to attend Texas A&M University and major in public health. This was going to be her final season of competitive softball.

“It’s frustrating and disappointing,” said Kizer, who already had pitched three no-hitters this season. “I’d give anything to be back on the field. I still have hope.”

Speaking of hope, Brock is turning on the lights at its softball, baseball and football fields from 8:30-9 p.m. each Friday as a symbol of hope that sports will resume this spring.

Ryan Starnes, Brock’s eighth-year softball coach, has guided the Lady Eagles to the state semifinals in each of the last four years. This year’s team was hoping to win those final two games and join the 2009 Lady Eagles as state champions.

“I’ve got eight seniors this year and most of them may not get to play again,” Starnes said. “They’re chomping at the bit. They’re ready if the time comes.”

Despite having to replace key starters from last year’s 33-7 team, Brock was 12-5 when this season was suspended. That included a 15-0 win over Paradise in the District 7-3A opener with Kizer pitching a no-hitter.

“We were getting better with every game we played. This was going to be our year, and we were excited,” said Kizer, who already had posted a 10-2 pitching record this season.

“We played our first district game that Tuesday (March 10), then they told us our season was suspended. It was really hard to wrap your brain around. That could have been my last game forever. It shows you that you shouldn’t take anything for granted.”

Like other athletes around the state, the Brock softball players are practicing at home by themselves or with siblings or in small groups.

“Coach Starnes sent us a link to our workouts. We’re doing our part and holding each other accountable,” Kizer said.

Tonips practices with her freshman brother, Gavin, who plays baseball for Brock. “I pitch to him. We take ground balls and run sprints. But there’s only so much you can do on your own,” Tonips said.

When he was at Lexington in central Texas, Starnes coached through the 2009 swine flu pandemic that stopped UIL sports for two weeks just after the softball playoffs had begun. But schools remained open, and teams could still practice. They just couldn’t play other schools.

“We couldn’t play for a couple of weeks. We had to play two rounds of the playoffs (instead of one) each week to catch up,” Starnes said. “There was a lot of uncertainty back then, but it was nothing like this year has been.

“We’re trying to give our players some perspective about this situation. It’s terrible for our sport and the kids involved, but a lot of people have it much worse. People are losing their jobs and even their lives.”

Still, teenagers can’t help but wonder why school and extracurricular activities have been taken away — especially seniors experiencing high school for the last time.

“I believe everything happens for a reason, but I’m waiting to see what the reason is for this,” Tonips said. “Maybe it’s that we need to treat every day like it could be our last — because it could be. We need to give 110 percent on every play because it might be our last play.”

Athletes around the nation are missing their daily school routines and being around friends and teammates because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I even heard one of our girls say she misses our infield circuit drill,” Starnes said. “We did it every Wednesday. The girls are required to play different spots. They’re constantly running and moving, and there’s a punishment for each error they make. They used to hate doing it, but now they’re saying how much they miss it.”

Tonips, who batted .538 and posted an 8-0 pitching record last season, said she misses all the strength and conditioning drills that “no one wants to do.”

“I’d do anything,” Tonips said, “to get back on that field — even if it was just one more game.”