June 08, 2021
Gretchen Wolpert had to blink twice. It’s not exactly what the Upper Dublin softball star intended to see while she was rubbing the sleep out of her eyes one April weekday morning last spring. But there it was splashed across her computer screen, as if the tentacles of her virtual world reached through and tore her heart out upon seeing the email that her junior year was finished.
It’s the same reaction millions of high school athletes felt last year when the COVID-19 pandemic ended their seasons. It not only stomped on the hopes of playing, it caused many to wonder if and when they would play again—and if the work and commitment that they plunged into their sports for over a decade would evolve into a college scholarship.
For four area standout high school seniors, it affected them in different ways. Many were affected by the backlog of staying college seniors, because of the NCAA mandate allowing college student-athletes an extra year of eligibility.
"No high school athlete will ever experience what we experienced last year, and I hope no one has to deal with what we faced. But we survived. You learn even during the tough times you can push through it." —Gretchen Wolpert
It’s clogged the system, especially for outgoing seniors like Wolpert, fellow North Penn pitching star Mady Volpe, Upper Dublin all-Suburban One sprinter Maura Dianno and West Chester Henderson’s all-state cross-country runner Liesl Scherrer.
The foursome, like many across the country, had to rethink what their sports meant to them, if they wanted to continue in college and how it tested them.
Wolpert, 18, is going to Division III powerhouse Pfeiffer University (North Carolina), where she’s projected to play first base and catch. Wolpert was looking at Alabama. The pandemic-cancelled season robbed her of possibly being Upper Dublin’s all-time home run leader, finishing with 9 in her career—one shy of tying the record.
“I could have been in a rut with recruiting, but Pfeiffer plays at a high D-I level,” said Wolpert, who did finish with a school-record .988 fielding percentage, a career batting average of .327 and hit five homers this year. “Down the line, I’m going to realize that everything we all went through last year is going to make us better, because of what we learned in 2020.
“But I’ll admit, I was really scared I wouldn’t be able to find a school to play for in college. The seniors had their junior years taken away, which for all of us is what colleges base their recruiting on. I’ve been playing softball since I was four, and not having a season was really hard. I can say that April morning seeing that email pretty much ripped my heart out.
“The dream that I had since I was little was to play college softball. I was afraid I would let my younger self down. No high school athlete will ever experience what we experienced last year, and I hope no one has to deal with what we faced. But we survived. You learn even during the tough times you can push through it. That’s what happened.”
Dianno, 18, is heading to Emory (Atlanta, Ga.) and plans on being a pre-med major. The Upper Dublin sprint star won the school’s prestigious Jackie Shuman Coaches Award for leadership, responsibility and athletics as the outstanding senior female athlete in all sports. She was getting attention from schools like Leigh, Lafayette and Bucknell.
Once the pandemic hit, the logjam began, forcing Dianno to rethink her destination and changed her direction if she even wanted to run in college. She’s been running since she was 4. When her junior year was torched, she took a deep look at herself.
“I was really angry about the situation I was in, because I lost a season of competing and everything was out of my control,” Dianno said. “I was fortunate to have my (older) brother Jake around. He always challenged me. When we were younger, there is a four-year gap between us, and he used to put me in the hockey net and take shots at me as the goalie (laughs) when I was in fourth grade. They gave me pads to wear (laughs).
“What got lost here is the girls were affected by this as much as the boys were. I worked hard my whole life and when it came to the girls, we were overlooked.” —Maura Dianno
“When the pandemic hit, I had no motivation to train or run. I just wasn’t that into it. Jake showed me how to lift. That motivated me again. I wasn’t thinking about running in college and now I am. I remember how unfair I originally felt having the season taken away, and it made me realize how much I missed running.
“This whole thing will make me think how I changed the way I did things. What got lost here is the girls were affected by this as much as the boys were. I worked hard my whole life and when it came to the girls, we were overlooked.”
Indeed, male and female athletes from six schools were contacted in reference to this story, and many confirmed that the girls were often pushed aside to make room for the male athletes when it came to using a school’s facilities during the pandemic, since numbers were minimized due to social distancing.
In past years, everyone said the girls were given as much access as the boys to their school’s respective training facilities.
“Everything had to be sanitized and we were only allowed around 15 guys this past spring to work out,” said one city football player. “It’s a shame that our girl athletes got screwed over.”
Like Dianno, Scherrer, 18, is headed to Emory, where she plans on majoring in business marketing and arts management. Unlike everyone here, Scherrer began her high school sports career late, beginning as a freshman at Henderson. She teasingly says she became “the couch to 5K girl.”
The pandemic tested her, too.
Though, it didn’t deter her. As a junior, Scherrer finished 142nd overall in the PIAA 5K Class AAA state championship. This year, she finished 17th overall, making her all-state among the top 25.
"I had to rearrange my thought process during the pandemic, because you weren’t training to race but training to keep your mental health and physical health together during last year." —Liesl Scherrer
“I had to rearrange my thought process during the pandemic, because you weren’t training to race but training to keep your mental health and physical health together during last year, since there was nothing to really look forward to, other than your next run,” Scherrer said. “I had someone run with me (Caroline Miller) every morning and we held hope that there would be a cross-country season. Our coaches are great. We had races early in the morning through the town, at around 4:30 in the morning.”
Summer training required 5-to-6 mile runs. They were brutal workouts near trails around their homes. Scherrer made sure she was in bed by 7 p.m. for their “the daybreak 5Ks.” It made for a great tableau with the rising sun during their runs.
“It was a great way to start your day, too,” she said. “Honestly, I lost a lot of weight, because I was running myself into the ground, but that goes with running. You always had it in the back of your head we were training for something that was never going to come, and we would be ultimately disappointed. It was like trying to keep a target in view without knowing whether or not it would be there.
“I don’t think I would have pursued running in college before the pandemic.”
Volpe is the most prolific pitcher on North Penn history — despite playing just three years. Entering the PIAA 6A state playoffs, the Coastal Carolina-bound right-handed pitcher had a 66-9 career record, going 22-2 this season, with 12 shutouts, and her 22 victories places her one shy of the North Penn single-season school record for victories in a season, and with her team still alive in the state tournament she'll have a chance to at least tie the record. She also owns school records for career victories and career strikeouts with 656.
Even though she owns almost every career and single-season record, what makes her cringe is Volpe could have obliterated records if not for having her junior season wiped out due to COVID.
Volpe, 18, began playing softball at 5.
The game is a part of her — and last year, it was taken away. It was the first time she didn’t play softball in 12 years.
"I have to be honest with myself. I don’t think I’ll ever take being on a softball field for granted again." —Mady Volpe
“It was heartbreaking, but I feel like now it makes me more grateful to have a season,” Volpe said. “I remember we were practicing and we were enjoying the two weeks off because of COVID, when our coach sat us down and told us this could be our last practice for 2020.
“I was standing in the Chipotle line with my teammates and that’s when we found out officially. It was hard for me to stay motivated. I remember my dad dragging me out every day with ‘Let’s go, come on, you’re playing summer ball.’ I would tell him, ‘No, I’m not.’
“Last June, we began practicing with my travel ball team. It didn’t seem real. We just practiced. We also got to travel out to places like Atlanta, South Carolina, Arizona. We all played with masks on without any fans. It was hard playing with the mask, but we were playing. I know of cases where other kids have had their scholarships pulled because of the backlogs in college. It’s hard for the incoming athletes, but it’s also hard for the sophomores and juniors moving up. I’m grateful the Coastal Carolina coaches have been very honest with me.
“I have to be honest with myself. I don’t think I’ll ever take being on a softball field for granted again.”
Nor will any high school athlete who endured 2020.
Joseph Santoliquito is an award-winning sportswriter based in the Philadelphia area who has been writing for PhillyVoice since its inception in 2015 and is the president of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be followed on Twitter here: @JSantoliquito.