Taylor Penning walks by Summit’s softball field about once a week, thinking about how she should be out there playing with her teammates.
But the Summit senior, more than most players in Williamson County, knows just how dangerous the coronavirus pandemic is in the U.S.
Her great uncle, Gary Lindsey of Nashville, died of COVID-19 on March 29. He was 69.
“We love softball, but there are way bigger things than softball going on right now and life is more important than playing a softball game,” Penning said.
The TSSAA canceled all spring sports, including softball, in mid-April due to the pandemic.
There were nearly 72,000 American deaths from COVID-19, including 226 in Tennessee, through Tuesday.
Lindsey had a heart condition, making him more at risk. He was a retired truck driver who loved auto racing.
“I’ve personally been affected and we weren’t allowed to go visit, so it’s like there’s no closure really,” Penning said. “He was a great person. He was really close to our family, so it was kind of hard.”
Summit made it to the Class AAA Sectional the past two seasons, raising expectations that the Lady Spartans might earn their first state tournament appearance in school history this season.
“Yeah, for sure, since freshman year we’ve always dreamed of going to state and I truly believe that this year was the year we were going to go and hopefully win it all,” Penning said.
Penning, a two-time District 11-AAA Pitcher of the Year, posted a 3.20 earned run average in 2019. The Chattanooga State signee also played right field and hit .443 with 27 RBIs.
“Taylor is an awesome fielder, so she only pitched in 17 of our 35 games because we needed her on defense,” Summit coach Jenny Stevenson said. “She’s one of the most athletic players I’ve ever coached. I’m going to miss her.”
After finishing one win short of the state tournament the past two seasons, the Lady Spartans hoped to break through this spring with seven returning starters.
“In our minds, this was our year,” Stevenson said. “They were seniors, we kind of started this thing together at Summit and so we definitely were planning on being at state this year. So, yeah, it was very devastating.”
Stevenson, who became the first softball scholarship recipient at Tennessee in 1995, has turned a struggling program into a contender during her four seasons at Summit.
“Before I got there, they hadn’t actually even won a game in the district tournament so we definitely were trying to make that happen this year and believing we were going to,” said Stevenson, a former All-American at Soddy-Daisy.
Sports at all levels have shut down in unprecedented fashion and softball was no exception.
“It’s really even hard to describe it,” Stevenson said. “As everything was kind of unfolding, I was, like, I cannot believe this is how this is going to end. Seasons don’t get canceled, school doesn’t get canceled, the world doesn’t shut down.”
Cleanup hitter Carly Scott, a four-year starter, made a big impact for Summit. The first baseman hit .471 with 46 RBIs last year.
Leadoff hitter Mia Apple, who hit .380 with only three strikeouts in 117 plate appearances last season, was another key player. She stole 26 bases, scored 39 runs and never made an error in center field.
Scott and Apple also signed with Chattanooga State.
Seniors Cheyenne Scott (pitcher-third base, Dyersburg State signee) and Caitlin Bennett (Page transfer during her sophomore year) have also contributed to the turnaround.
Independence transfers Abby O’Rielly (outfielder) and Elena Escobar (pitcher-outfield, would have been eligible by postseason) gave Summit an upgrade.
Summit got off to a 0-3 start with Apple sidelined by a leg injury and the offense struggling, but Stevenson believes the defending district champions would have turned things around.
Social distancing made it difficult for Stevenson to tell her players about the cancellation of the season.
“One of the other things that makes this so hard is you can’t see them and tell them,” Stevenson said. “It wasn’t like we could have a big team meeting and cry it out, so I just had to text the seniors actually because I wanted them to hear it from me and not through social media.”
One player grieved at the field and another went on a four-mile run.
As painful as it was to have the season canceled, Stevenson keeps things in perspective because several of her acquaintances got COVID-19.
“A teacher I had in high school, somebody I went to church with here in Franklin got it, a couple people I went to college with, no one super close and they’ve all recovered and they’re fine,” Stevenson said.
There have been over 3.6 million confirmed cases worldwide, including 257,207 deaths.
“It’s kind of hard to even get your head around it,” Stevenson said. “It’s devastating.”
Apple and Penning play for Tennessee Elite in summer travel ball, but it’s uncertain when the team will be allowed to compete.
“As of right now, they’re hopeful but it’s all up in the air pretty much like everything,” Apple said.
She wonders if her first semester of college classes at Chattanooga State will be online.
“There’s no guarantee for anything at the moment.” said Apple, who will room with Penning.