This is the second in a series of stories highlighting the seniors who would have been playing their final sports seasons this spring.
When the Alaska School Activities Association announced on March 23 it was canceling all of the state’s spring sports, it was another line in the defense against the spread of COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus, but a heavy blow to many high school seniors who will now be deprived of playing their final seasons.
In Homer, that means a handful of softball, soccer, baseball and track and field athletes are left to reflect on the years they’ve been able to spend on the field thus far. The five seniors of the girls soccer team had been looking forward to this season, with hopes of it being one of their best chances to make it to the state championships and perform well there — both soccer teams took fourth place at last year’s state championship tournament.
Three of those seniors, Eve Brau, Jamie Parish and Daisy Kettle, have been on the soccer team since they were freshmen, back when the program looked a little different. Coach Mike Tozzo said that when those players were freshmen, there were only about 11 to 12 athletes on the team. They often played games with only 11 people, sometimes only 10.
Girls soccer in Homer has ballooned since then, with about 40 girls in the program now. Fellow seniors Rylee Doughty and Alyssum Veldstra both joined the varsity team later on. But back when Brau, Parish and Kettle were first playing, being on the team at all meant playing varsity, Tozzo said, even as freshmen.
Now, in what would have been their senior season, the girls were looking forward to coming full circle and finishing off their high school soccer careers. For Brau, it’s the only sport she’s played in high school. She’s played the sport since she was quite young, she said.
The fact that the season was canceled didn’t really set in until Tozzo sent the players a video he had made announcing the cancellation, Brau said.
“That’s when it really hit me that I’m never going to play competitive soccer again with the people I’ve grown up with,” she said.
“It was really hard,” Kettle said.
She said she had definitely been expecting it, given the growing coronavirus threat, but that it still hurt to know she wouldn’t get the closure of playing with her teammates one last time
Veldstra started playing her sophomore year without ever having played soccer before. She played with JV and varsity that first year and then moved up to varsity full time. She described a sense of shock.
“At first, it didn’t feel like it could be true when I found out in the afternoon but as it sunk in later that evening it was sort of devastating,” she wrote in an email.
Playing with the team is what Brau looked forward to every year, she said. Brau was excited to continue building the team and to hit the field once again with her friends. Those friends, and the camaraderie they share on and off the field, is one of the big things she’ll take away from the sport.
“It was kind of just like a place that we enjoyed being around each other,” Brau said of the team. “… It was a happy group we could all go to. … It was more of like a family rather than people you play a sport with.”
Doughty, who has played soccer for four years, swung between junior varsity and varsity her sophomore year and went up to varsity her junior year, echoed that sentiment.
“I’m really going to miss all the positive energy on the soccer team,” she said. “We’re always bringing each other up.”
It’s not just the games and the competition Doughty will miss, but also the little things like little moments during practices, being on the road to away games with her teammates, and just spending time with the team and Tozzo. Parish echoed those thoughts.
She said Tozzo had a way of challenging the players in a way that kept them engaged and made it into a competition.
“At practice if we weren’t doing something that he wanted us to … he would do (it) with us,” Parish said. “Or we would try to beat him and it was always a challenge.”
Kettle, too described the bus rides to away games, singing and celebrating with her teammates, and just being on the field with them as some of the things she will most miss.
“It’s like one of those sports where you really have to know each other and know how people play,” Kettle said. She’s been playing the sport since about the time she was in Kindergarten, and has grown up playing soccer with Brau and other members of the team. “And we really created strong bonds with each other.”
Parish said Tozzo taught her that it’s not always about being the best player on the field, but about how much work and effort one puts in. Parish and Brau described Tozzo as more than a coach — as someone they could talk to about other things and who taught them about more than just the sport.
“We talked to him about everything, and he talked back,” Brau said. “We could just have a normal conversation.”
Kettle, too, touted Tozzo’s coaching over the years, saying he’s the best coach she’s ever had.
“One of my favorite things about him is that he was just one of the girls, you know, when we were fooling around, but when it came to games he knew how to hype us up,” she said.
Tozzo could get in the players’ heads in a good way, Kettle said
Doughty said that while she thinks most of the team was preparing in a way for the spring sports season to be canceled, it was still disappointing.
“I was really bummed,” she said.
Parish said that when she found out about the season being canceled, she called fellow teammate Kettle, crying.
“We thought this was our best shot at going to state, at least in the year that I played,” Parish said. “(We thought) this is our year, this is our chance.”
A factor in that disappointment was all the work the athletes had put in during the off season in order to prepare for this year.
“We had a real shot at the title this year, and the ‘what if’ or ‘how would’ve it turned out’ is something that we are going to just have to live with,” Veldstra wrote.
Tozzo said there’s no way to know whether it would have been a great season or a weak one — a string of losses or a state championship.
“All the work you do in the off season to be able to find that out just gets taken away from you, and that’s a really tough thing to deal with,” he said of the athletes.
Tozzo said he feels badly that the seniors aren’t able to finish their soccer careers out.
“And I feel badly that they don’t get to see all their hard work come to fruition,” he said.
It’s been a pleasure getting to coach them, and getting to know them, he said. Tozzo said that missing out on a season means “missing out on so much more than winning and losing.”
“We talk a lot about the bigger picture in sports, and the education that comes along with sports,” Tozzo said. “And so I really hope that they feel that they learned something about life from me, on top of skills.”
Things like how to handle winning and how to handle losing, he said. How to be part of a team, and how to handle one’s emotions.
“I think these seniors are a group that the community can be really proud of, you know,” Tozzo said. “They represented Homer High School elegantly, and they represented what it means to be a student athlete.
Tozzo pointed to the fact that, at last year’s state championship tournament in Anchorage, the girls soccer team won both the sportsmanship award for Division II and the award for having the highest grade point average as a team, on top of coming fourth in the tournament.
Doughty said the COVID-19 pandemic situation has made her realize the importance of not taking things for granted.
“I have just appreciated the opportunity to even just go out and play soccer,” she said.
Like Doughty, Veldstra said the little moments like downtime on the buses and traveling together are the things she appreciated and will miss.
“Every one of my teammates are quality people so they made the whole soccer season a blast,” she wrote. “For the sport, I am going to miss just playing it — the whole experience from getting down to the turf and tying my cleats, warming up with my teammates, winning in amazing times like a PK shootout. Just everything. For coaching, Tozzo was just the most amazing coach and taught me so much about the game. It was just a privilege to play for him.”
Kettle recalled 2019’s Peninsula Conference semifinal match against Soldotna, which went into over time and two rounds of penalty kicks. She remembers looking up at the stands and seeing the seats and aisles filled with people cheering. It’s one of her best memories of playing for Homer, she said.
“Thanks for always supporting us,” she said to the community
The senior members of the 2020 girls soccer team are: