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BY JEFF FALK

The vast majority of local student-athletes understand the importance of social distancing, the deadly effects of the Coronavirus and the importance of following directives from government officials. But that understanding only lessens the sting of losing an entire spring scholastic sports season a little bit.

It still really, really hurts.

On Thursday, April 9th, the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association announced the cancelation of the scholastic spring sports season across the state, because of public health safety concerns related to the COVID-19 virus. It was a historic decision, the likes of which we have never seen in our lifetimes – or quite possibly ever.

Locally, the decision was met with shock, despair, disbelief, and understanding. The decision affected hundreds of Lebanon County student-athletes competing in track-and-field, baseball, softball, boys’ tennis, lacrosse and boys’ volleyball.

“When you’re a coach or a student-athlete, the thing you miss is the camaraderie,” said Rob Bare, who’s been Cedar Crest’s track-and-field coach for 26 years. “You miss the opportunity to get in kids’ faces. You miss giving them that motivational speech that takes them from a 25-percent energy level to a 99-percent energy level. You miss just watching these student-athletes. There’s an inspirational quote that says, ‘The blessings you see are sometimes the results of the sacrifices you don’t see.’ Sometimes we forget how hard these kids work.

“They (the student-athletes) are bummed,” continued Bare. “They’re devastated. But I think they’ve learned that life isn’t always going to be fair. The message is, ‘Don’t give up and fight like heck.'”

On Friday, March 13th, Governor Tom Wolf announced that Pennsylvania schools would be closed for a period of two weeks, and Lebanon County schools shifted into a virtual learning mode. At that time, local student-athletes were a week into preparing for the spring scholastic sports season.

But many local athletes had been looking forward to and getting ready for their sports for months – even years – prior to that.

“At that point, we knew something was going to come out from Governor Wolf,” said Bare. “I told our coaches, ‘We may need to sit the kids down and talk to them.’ One of the things I told them (the student-athletes) is that life is 10 percent what happens to you and 90 percent how you react to it. You’ve got to make sure you react to it as positively as possible.

“At that point, I thought Wolf was going to shut schools down for two or three weeks,” Bare continued. “They’re 17- and 18-year-olds and most have been doing track since the seventh grade. They’ve been working for this time for years. Obviously, they’re heartbroken, but the younger athletes felt so bad for the seniors. We have 23 senior boy athletes, and some of them bleed blue and gray. Hopefully, what they learned is to never take anything for granted.”

Unlike their collegiate counterparts, local student-athletes entertained no hope of having their scholastic eligibility extended. The loss of a year of high-school sports eligibility was something they could never get back.

In many ways, the privilege of high-school competition is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of experience. But if scholastic sports teach athletes nothing else, it’s the importance of resiliency.

“The whole time this was going on, we were prepared for the worst and hoping for the best,” said Bare. “I just kept hoping that maybe we could have an abbreviated season. That would’ve been my hope. For any team, win or lose, you want to have a season. You want to be there for the season.

“This would’ve been one of the top-five boys’ teams that I’ve ever had,” added Bare. “Every single day, our 23 seniors brought so much energy to the team. They deserve so much more than they got. It’s still disappointing. I’m just heart-broken. It’s unparalleled. We haven’t seen anything like this in our generation.”

Extra-curricular activities like sports, have always been, and will continue to be, an extension of the classroom. Through experience, they teach developing young adults things like teamwork, a work ethic and certain levels of appreciation that will serve them well later in life.

“I’m not saying the boys’ team would’ve won a section (One) championship or a league (Lancaster-Lebanon) championship,” said Bare. “It was one of those teams that you build for. We would’ve been in the mix. I would’ve rolled that team against anyone. Win or lose, I know that team would’ve battled. They were talented, but positive as well.

“It’s not about me. It’s about the kids,” Bare added. “I’m devastated for the seniors. One of the things the team missed out on was hearing about Team Tiff (Bare’s deceased wife), learning about Team Tiff. The newcomers didn’t get a chance to hear about her fight (with cancer) and her courage.”

On a personal level, the COVID-19 crisis has provided a test for Bare’s unwavering positivity. Yet in these times of uncertainty, Bare’s special brand of positive energy is needed now more than ever.

“I try to put a positive spin on things,” said Bare, who continues to teach elementary physical education remotely. “With Tiff passing away, coaching has been very therapeutic for me. I’ve just got too many hours on my hand. I miss the therapy that those kids give me. I will always put a positive spin on things, but you’ve also got to be realistic.”

It could be that Tiff Bare’s passing about a year ago has allowed Rob Bare to keep the Coronavirus pandemic in perspective. Publicly anyway, it is difficult to see that Bare is still grieving the loss of his wife.

“I’ve had a lot of people talk to me about Tiff lately,” said Bare. “When you go through a tragedy like that, it makes you realize that yes, the Coronavirus is serious, yes, it is taking lives. From my perspective, I’ve seen it already. I know life isn’t fair. I’ve experienced life being unfair.

“I’ve also realized that the Lord brought Tiff and I together for a reason,” concluded Bare. “He knew she was going to be a great coach’s wife. She took on the role of a team mom. I think the Lord knew I would be a quality caregiver for her, so Tiff could rest as much as possible. He knew we were going to be the perfect partnership.”

What follows is a text message sent to Rob Bare by Cedar Crest senior thrower Eric Wawrzyniak:

‘Hey coach. I’m bummed to hear about the season, but I just wanted to take a minute and say thank you so much for everything. Track has opened up so many doors for me and I never thought I would be pursuing it in college, if it wasn’t for you and the program. I can’t tell you how highly people speak of you and how much of an inspiration you are to others and myself included. I’ve had many moments where I’ve just stopped and thought, ‘What would Coach Bare do?’ I’ll never forget the experiences I had with the CC track program. I’ve worn my Team Tiff bracelet every day since the day I got it (it literally has not come off) and it has given me so much motivation when I haven’t had any. If I could ask you to do one thing for the future athletes, just tell them to never take anything for granted. Tell them to train like every rep is their last and you never know when everything is going to get taken away from you and tell them to cherish those moments with teammates and friends. Once again, thank you coach, I am really going to miss you. Stay safe and healthy, love ya. God bless.’

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