Anderson County high school seniors look back at a season of 'what ifs'
Kirsten Meeks has played softball since she was 6 years old. She played travel ball year-round and when she entered seventh grade, joined Palmetto High's varsity team.
As an outfielder and pitcher, she showed promise early and committed to Southern Wesleyan University as a sophomore. However, in the fall of her senior year she made a decision that significantly affected her softball career: not to play at the next level and instead to focus on a career in teaching.
"The passion that I have for (teaching) and I have such a big heart for helping the kids," Meeks said of her reasons for changing her path. "While we were still in school, I was a part of the Teacher Connect Program in a field placement with a first-grade class."
Meeks looked at her final softball season as a last hurrah with fellow seniors Claire Ellison, Addie Johnson and Kenley Powell. Together, they have won the past two Class AAAA Upper State titles and haven't lost a region game in three years.
It was also the final hurrah for Meeks' parents, Jimmy and Bonnie Meeks.
"We've just put a lot of time into softball, most of our lives," Jimmy Meeks said. "When she first made the decision not to play, I was very disappointed but that was the selfish part of me. It hit me that it wasn't about me, it was about what she wants. ... What makes her happy is most important to me."
What might've been:Seniors, families lament loss of high school spring sports season
After suspending sports for more than a month, the South Carolina High School League officially cancelled the spring sports season on April 22. Athletes and their families are left to deal with the sadness of losing the lasting memories that are a senior season and the opportunities associated with it.
For the Meeks family, one last hurrah turned into what ifs.
"It is harder knowing I won't get to move on to college like the other girls I know," Meeks said. "I did make that decision, but it is hard. My mom asked me other day if I think I'll play again and the honest answer is 'no,' because there's not an option for me to."
The effects of the coronavirus on seniors is not just limited to the field.
"We just found out that we'll have graduation but only two family members can attend," Bonnie Meeks said. "Of course Jimmy and I will be there, but Kirsten has an older sister (Brooke) and she's just devastated that she can't attend."
With a little time to process her lost season, Meeks looks back on her Palmetto career with pride and is looking forward to the new chapter in her life.
"When someone hears Palmetto softball, it means something," Meeks said. "We've proved ourselves over the past four years. To me, it feels good to be a part of a program that rose from the bottom to the top."
'I wanted them to say either we were or weren't going to play'
The Spencer family breathes tennis. For T.L. Hanna senior Austin Spencer, it's something he has enjoyed playing since he was 7 years old. His father, Rob Spencer, is Hanna's varsity tennis coach.
"I just play with my family all the time," Austin Spencer said. "Tennis has become a big part of my life. A lot of my close friends have come from it."
Austin has been a varsity tennis player since seventh grade, but excels in track and field and cross country. He is a three-time champion at the Region 1-AAAAA cross country meet, and as a senior won the Upper State championship and placed fourth at the state finals. In addition, he was named to the 2019-20 All-Upstate boys cross country first team. In track, he has been an All-Region selection in both the 1600m and 3200m.
He signed to run at Winthrop but was looking forward to one last run in tennis with his father and teammates. He never got the chance.
"I was ready to hear it because I wanted them to say either we were or weren't going to play," Spencer said. "I've really enjoyed the experience at T.L. Hanna, really enjoyed the team aspect and I'm going to miss that a lot."
Spencer was not a top player in Hanna's lineup, but he has contributed over the years. Because of his track obligations, he plays in the minimum number of matches needed to qualify for the state playoffs. Last season, he recorded a win in the Yellow Jackets' Class AAAAA Elite 8 match against Mauldin High.
His father and coach's lasting memory of him in high school was his performance in the Florence Preseason Tournament early in the year.
"I got a chance to watch him against top competition, and he played well," Rob Spencer said. "It was satisfying to watch him give it his all in the opportunities he had. His focus was truly on track but had love in his heart for the tennis team and wanted to make sure he could be good enough and start for us in the big matches."
As he prepares into transitioning into track and cross country full time, tennis will continue to be in Austin's life.
"I can definitely see myself continuing to play every year," Spencer said.
'I definitely cried a whole bunch'
Abi Gardner has been an all-region player in each year of her high school softball career. Going into her senior season at Powdersville High, she received the honor of being selected team captain.
"You can only be captain your senior year," Gardner said. "It felt good that my other teammates saw me as someone to look up to and rely on."
Gardner had high hopes for the season. She and co-caption Jessica Kittlestad called a meeting where the team discussed goals for the year. The biggest was winning a good amount of region games after going winless last year in region play.
Severe weather prevented several practices and scrimmages early and the team was only a few matches into its season when play was suspended.
"We knew as a team we had the potential to (win)," Gardner said. "We had a lot of seniors, so we were definitely more hyped up and ready to win some games.
"I definitely cried a whole bunch, I was texting the other seniors about how it really hit that it was over. We definitely shed some tears."
Another thing Gardner looked forward to was one last run with her younger sister, freshman Hayley King. Their mother, Cindy Clark, was in the stands for each game and was looking forward to seeing what the duo could accomplish together.
"To see your kids accomplish big things makes you proud as a parent," Clark said. "I think they're both really upset how things ended, for me it's upsetting because that's the last time they'll step on a field together."
Gardner's playing career is over. She said she'll likely attend Greenville Tech and transfer to a four-year university to pursue a career in social work. What will always stick with her about her Powdersville career is the bonds she made.
"I play travel ball, so I know what it's like to play at a high level," Gardner said. "But playing for your school, you build a family. It's meant a lot to have people to rely on during season and during school. They're really close friends for me."
'It was heartbreaking. Just to see what we could've had.'
Region 1-AAAA rivals Dylan Carter of Palmetto and Landon Smith of Wren were excited about their final high school baseball seasons. Carter, a third baseman, has been a starter since his sophomore year, while Smith, a pitcher, was returning from injury.
Smith made an immediate impact for the Hurricanes as a sophomore. He won team rookie of the year as the closer when Wren won the district championship. However, a partial tear of his ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow cost him his junior season.
"Junior year is your big recruiting year," Danny Smith, Landon's father, said. "For him to be hurt, it was devastating for us."
Smith received a platelet-rich plasma injection in the elbow and rehabbed two to three days a week in his bid to return to the field. He entered the season ready to play; however, COVID-19 stopped him and his team almost before they could get started.
Several college coaches were scheduled to watch him pitch against Lexington High on March 21, but five days before that start, the season was suspended.
"Long rehab and a lot of time that went into it," Smith said. "I felt great, pitched every scrimmage except one. Went five innings against Blythewood and Powdersville.
"It was sad. It was heartbreaking. Just to see what we could've had. Me and the seniors can't put on a blue and gold uniform again."
Carter's varsity career started as a freshman in 2016. As he split time between JV and varsity, the Mustangs won a region title. Entering his senior year, he was optimistic that his team could reach greater heights.
"I wanted to win region, district and upper state. I think we had the potential," Carter said. "We were doing really well, probably having our best year yet."
The Mustangs got off to a 5-1 start with Carter batting over .500. When the team saw a suspension looming, it held a makeshift senior night in its final game against Travelers Rest on March 13. The Mustangs won 7-4 and Carter went 2-for-4 in the game.
"We had a little senior night, so it wasn't the total end of the world," Carter said, "but still very disappointing."
Carter is signed to Southern Wesleyan, while Smith is still considering his options.
‘This was supposed to be their year to enjoy and have fun’
While the loss of the 2020 spring season has been emotionally devastating for high school seniors who know this was to be the last time they donned their school’s uniform, it has been painful as well to those who will go on to play in college and to the parents who have watched from the bleachers since the seasons in which their children weren’t much taller than their bats and a head shorter than the crossbar of the soccer goal.
Softball has been at the center in the household since Reagan Abercrombie was 9. One of her dad's earliest memories of her playing was winning a USAAA 10-and-under age group world series championship with the Palmetto Wildfire. Family trips to watch Reagan play travel ball were common; often, they included her grandparents.
Belton-Honea Path was only one game away from the Class AAAA state championship series during Reagan’s junior season, and she looked forward to making another run before heading to attend college and play softball at Columbia International University. When the SCHSL suspended all spring sports, BHP was only one region game into the season.
"I played my last game and didn't know it was my last game," Abercrombie said.
"It's hard to sit back and watch your kid work since 8, 9 years old and this gets cut short," said Mark Abercrombie, Reagan's father. "This was supposed to be their year to enjoy and have fun."
Instead, Reagan said, she would look further back for softball’s greatest moments, shared with classmate Meagan Vaughn, the only other senior on BHP's 2020 softball team. The duo led the Bears to the first region championship in program history in 2018 and to its first Upper State finals in 2019.
"Me and Megan have been playing together since the seventh grade," she said. "We're opposites but work well together. I think we left a legacy that laid a foundation for the future."
‘It makes you want to break down a little’
Pendleton's Kamiya Dendy is one of the most decorated track & field athletes in the country. She is a five-time SCHSL state champion in the long and high jumps and competes nationally outside of the high school season. Before the season began, she had secured a scholarship to Auburn University.
She didn’t need this spring, but COVID-19 still robbed her of a treasured opportunity. Pendleton had built its first track, and this was supposed to be its inaugural season.
"I was able to practice on it for a few months," Dendy said. "It felt different. Last three years (we were) practicing on concrete or grass."
Dendy's lost season has international implications as well. She was 2 inches from the U.S. Olympic Trials standard in the high jump, and she was in the running to make U20 Team USA at the Pan American Games. Without the chance to compete, she can't improve her marks.
"When you're by yourself and you think about it ... it makes you want to break down a little," said Tony Stewart, Dendy’s stepfather. "You really want to cry because you hate it for Kamiya and the work she's put in."
‘I thought we could’ve made one last run’
T.L. Hanna's Conor Dowler has a lot of soccer ahead of him. He’s a high school All-American and a Furman University signee. Losing his final season with the Yellow Jackets, however, still hurt as if he weren’t playing again.
"I was really looking forward to my senior season," Dowler said. "I've never been past the first round of the playoffs, but the group of guys we had were stepping up and I thought we could've made one last run."
Dowler's final moment at Hanna was the game-winning assist over rival Westside just before schools closed, one of many memories his parents Shane and Sarah will cherish. But there's also the parent's perspective of what has been lost.
"Sending them off to prom, walking on the field with them on senior night, graduation, who knows?” Sarah said. “There's so many what ifs, and the possibility of not experiencing those things I think as a parent you look forward to more than the child."
Dowler's competitiveness is not allowing him to stay far from the game. He's still training outside at any field that hasn't kicked him off and has been equally active in the house, constantly kicking the ball against the couch in the living room.
"Watching him play with passion and give everything, he's going to find a place to kick a ball," Shane Dowler said. "My couch is looking worn a bit now, but down the road you'll look and have great memories because that's all we got right now, just the couch.
“It's like, ‘Stop kicking the ball in the house.’ Then you say, ‘You know what? Keep going.' "
Kennington Smith covers high school sports for the Independent-Mail. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at email@example.com