June 17, 2020

After PHS Track Displayed Good Form Early On, Hopes for Big Season Dashed Due to COVID Pandemic

KNOCKED OFF TRACK: Matt Perello heads to the finish line in a race last spring for the Princeton High boys’ track team. The Bucknell University-bound senior star sprinter Perello was primed for a big senior campaign only to see the season canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

Ben Samara saw a lot of positives as the Princeton High track team got its preseason training underway in early March.

“The day before we started our preseason, our girls 4×400 had just run their season-best time at the indoors Meet of Champions,” said PHS head coach Samara.

“Everybody was healthy; we were feeling really good. Our girls’ squad, in particular, had their sights set on that county championship this spring. On the guys side, we had some pretty good individuals even though we graduated most of our squad that was really placing highly last year. Matt Perello was looking really good in the sprints. Dora Servil was looking very, very good. I think he would have had a strong spring as well.”

But after a week of training, schools were closed to the COVID-19 pandemic and in early May, the spring sports season was formally canceled.

“We were just getting set up and getting into the swing of things when it became obvious that things were going to change big time,” said Samara.

“We were just getting into the groove and then had the rug pulled out from under us.”

Dealing with those changes, Samara made sure to keep in contact with his athletes.

“When we knew that it was likely that we were going to remote learning, we had all of the kids sign up to the Remind app that allows us to blast messages out to the team,” said Samara.

“We hit the ground running as soon as we went to remote learning. We know how much the kids value the connection that they have on the team and the camaraderie that we all have. We knew that would be valuable to them during a really uncertain time. We just immediately started communicating with them. We sent workouts home for the kids to do on their own while they were social distancing and we would blast out messages, inspirational messages and calming messages.”

Not being together in person didn’t prevent the squad from celebrating its senior class.

“We have been doing calls on Zoom with the team weekly and bi-weekly; as soon as we found out that the season was canceled we wanted to honor this great senior class that we have so we did a Zoom call and a virtual Senior Day,” said Samara, whose Class of 2020 included Sophia Gao, Lizzy Hare, Anna Lieb, Colleen Linko, Gracie Poston, Kylee Silverman, Megan Tria, Raina Williamson, and Colleen Wisenab on the girls’ side and boy performers Charlie Biggs, Tyler Fu, Carter Serxner, Nick Trenholm, and Perello.

“The kids made videos for the seniors, they were really touching and really sweet. Everybody was pretty emotional on the call. It was a combination of honoring our seniors who mean so much to us but also knowing at the same time that our competitive season had been officially ended.”

While there may be no meets this spring, Samara believes the team can still accomplish a lot.

“It is important to say that we still consider ourselves in season, even after the governor’s announcement,” said Samara.

“Competition is just one part of a sports season. There is so much more that goes into it with the team activities. A lot of people are saying that without competition we are not in season or that we don’t have a season and that couldn’t be further from the truth. It is important for everybody who is following sports around the state and Princeton sports to know that there is a lot more that goes into it year round and during the season than just competition.”

Adapting to virtual training, the PHS athletes have been getting in some good work.

“We have been getting videos and updates from some of the kids,” said Samara.

“On every team, you are going to have different levels of interest and different levels of engagement. Our team has over 100 athletes but there is a very large portion of our team that has been very engaged.”

That engagement had been reflected in several ways. “We did a team workout challenge where we asked them to send us pictures of their workouts and we posted them on our Twitter account,” added Samara.

“Every day that we were supposed to have a meet, for the sprinters, I had it as a day where they would do a little time trial. If they were running on the road, they just ran for a certain amount of time but I wanted to keep consistent with our schedule and keep them engaged. We have been in contact at least a few times a week. We also want to be really conscious that this is a really stressful time for them. They have been doing remote learning from school so we are keeping them engaged but not overwhelming them.”

It is a bit overwhelming for Samara to not see his Class of 2020 get to end their careers on the track.

“It has been really hard for me personally; the senior group that we have together now is a group that is very special to me and to coach [Jim] Smirk,” said Samara.

“To not get to see them race in a Princeton uniform again is sad. We are all trying to understand that there are bigger things at play here than sports. I said to the kids on one Zoom call that this group is going to be the group that never takes anything for granted as they go through their lives.”

In the long run, Samara believes that the sadness of this spring will lead to harder efforts in the future.

“I think there will be a sense of urgency, especially right away,” said Samara.

“They are saying there could be spikes and we could be pulled out of school at any time. If you are on that track racing from here on out, you better race like it is your last because it very well could be. I think that is a good lesson for track, for life and for the kids. You can take away something very valuable from this.”