East Marshall softball team forced to forfeit after positive COVID-19 test
LE GRAND — The thought will likely linger in their heads forever.
The East Marshall softball team was denied the chance to answer that question on Monday as the 12th-ranked Mustangs, en route to their Class 2A Region 4 final at No. 3 Ogden, received word from athletic director Scott Wheater that a member of the team had tested positive for COVID-19.
The caravan of Mustang players, parents and fans headed west on Highway 30 turned around before the school bus had even reached its destination, and before the East Marshall softball team got the chance to complete its journey.
Head coach Jary Hoskey addressed the team upon its return to East Marshall High School, holding his emotions in check as well as he could.
“You worked hard to have a shot and we did,” he stammered. “Either it wasn’t meant to be or something better’s coming along. I have nothing but sorrow for you kids.”
The season that began three weeks behind schedule because of the coronavirus pandemic ended prematurely, too, for the Mustangs. In hopes of earning a second-straight trip to Fort Dodge, East Marshall was to meet the same Ogden team it beat in last year’s state tournament quarterfinals.
“This game meant so much,” said senior Reagan McIlrath. “Those memories will last a lifetime from last year and I wanted to make more this year obviously because this is such a fun group of girls to play with. It sucks not to see how competitive we could have been with [Ogden] because I know for a fact we could have been, so it kind of hurts a lot.”
East Marshall’s three seniors — Hannah Birks, Kodie Hoskey and McIlrath — were the key returners from a club that went 32-6 and placed fourth at state last summer. In a season that none of them were sure would begin, it was heartbreaking for them to see it end.
“It didn’t even seem real at first,” said Birks, the team’s third baseman. “It didn’t really hit me until we got back [to the school]. I wasn’t ready to be done.
“This is something nobody’s ever had to experience before. It’s hard knowing we could have had a shot but we’ll never know. It doesn’t even feel done. It feels so unreal.”
The unfortunate truth, however, is that a member of the Mustangs’ roster received a positive test result for COVID-19, thereby disqualifying the team from further competition. Wheater, the athletic director as well as a softball dad, addressed the team upon its return to Le Grand.
“I just want to apologize to you, I have no words,” he said. “I feel terrible for you. … I’ve never been so sick to my stomach in my life for you guys. I’m sorry.”
Wheater also had to issue mandates for the remainder of the team to self-quarantine, per guidance from the Marshall County Health Department, in case the virus was passed along before the infected player was quarantined.
Not the way the Mustangs had intended to spend their next two weeks, not by any stretch.
“We really wanted to knock the door down twice, but we didn’t get the opportunity,” said Kodie, who in Friday’s regional semifinals set the school’s career strikeouts record. “It’s our senior year and we don’t want it to end ever, but I think [going to state last year] does have an impact because we had so much fun going to state last year and getting to experiencing it.
“It’s hard to stay strong in this type of situation because none of us wanted it to happen, we didn’t want this to become real and it did. It’s hard to accept, I still can’t even accept it.”
Instead of a state tournament rematch in the regional finals, Ogden (19-3) advances as the third-seed to Rogers Sports Complex in Fort Dodge next week while East Marshall (15-3) waits out the potential for coronavirus-related symptoms.
The Mustangs weren’t the first team in the state that didn’t get the opportunity to finish their season because of COVID-19, but they were the only club that experienced such unfortunate timing.
“What a stinking way to go out,” coach Hoskey said. “It was just absolutely devastating. You play the cards you’re dealt and that’s all we can do. It’s an obstacle and we’ve got to try to work around that.
“Kudos to Kodie and Reags and Hannah B, our three seniors that are really going to be missed. I don’t have much to say except I’m sorry and I love coaching.”
Getting back to within a game of state was beyond what coach Hoskey had expected for a club that graduated eight seniors from last year’s fourth-place squad, but he also noted that it doesn’t mean you stop kicking just because the goalposts move.
After a thrilling 2-1, come-from-behind victory over Pella Christian in Friday’s regional semifinal in Le Grand, the Mustangs were headed out on the road for a shot at a second-straight state tournament berth.
“It just stinks to end it that way,” coach Hoskey added. “I’d rather have went over to Ogden and got beat 1-0 or 2-1 or whatever because then that’s closure. I’m always going to think ‘what if?’
“Congratulations on what you guys have done and how you’ve handled yourselves all the way through. We’re Mustangs and we act like it either home or away and you’ve done that.
“It’s just sad, it really is. I wish I could wiggle my nose and turn back the time and everything would be OK, but it actually isn’t.”
After Iowa high school spring sports were wiped from the calendar on April 18, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds’ announcement on May 19 was something of a surprise. Giving summer sports the green light, after approval from the Iowa High School Athletic Association and the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union, lifted the fog of doubt.
Some schools, such as Belmond-Klemme and Eagle Grove, didn’t even make it into the starting gate.
East Marshall ran into a finish line it hadn’t foreseen.
“We’re lucky that we had a season, right, because I really didn’t know if we would or not,” said assistant coach Greg Lee. “The three seniors when we started Week 1, we were ready to go, we got off to a good start and you guys took advantage of every game. You guys probably wondered too in the back of your mind if we were going to make it, and it’s really bad timing on the thing but I’m so proud of the time you guys had and took advantage of.”
Lee put it to the players to be there for each other during this difficult time, and Hoskey reminded all his players of their value to the program.
“Whatever you contributed to this ballclub, even though [the season] was cut short, don’t cut yourself short because you’re an integral part,” he said, stumbling over the words. “It’s just really sad for these three seniors because they’ll never get another shot to be Mustangs.”
McIlrath and Hoskey have both signed on to play softball at Marshalltown Community College. Birks, too, will attend MCC but is not playing softball.
“It really sucks but I’m just glad that I got to play with these girls for as long as we did and we had a really good season,” Kodie said, “and that last game (against Pella Christian) is a really good way to end it, too.”