June 15 was to be the crowning of the first ever CHSAA State Champion in baseball at MCU Park in Coney Island. The Brooklyn-Queens AA division, comprised of Monsignor McClancy, Archbishop Molloy, Holy Cross, Xavierian and St. Francis Prep, were effectively going to merge with the Nassau and Suffolk County Catholic Schools of Long Island.
Each team would play an 18-game league schedule, with the locals from Brooklyn-Queens facing off against one another three times each, as well as pairing up with the Long Island schools one-time each.
The thinking – according to Commissioner Jim Grillo of the Brooklyn-Queens baseball schools, who doubles as the athletic director at St. Edmund Prep in Brooklyn – was for competitive balance among the schools in the CHSAA.
“It was really a confluence of factors,” Grillo told this paper in an interview on Monday afternoon. “Essentially we were kind of put in a position where we didn’t think we had great options on either side, and this was really the compromised solution. The idea of putting all 12 Catholic High Schools in Brooklyn-Queens in the same league just didn’t make any sense.
“It became clear that it wasn’t going to be an option for us in 2020 so we needed to do something else,” he added. “The Long Island schools, because there are only six AA schools in Nassau and Suffolk, they’re kind of in the same boat where they don’t have quite enough games if they play against themselves.”
The respective winner from the Brooklyn-Queens and Long Island leagues would face the winner of the Manhattan-Bronx-Staten Island league, with the group producing a city champion that would then battle the champion from upstate at MCU Park on June 15.
Second-year head coach Thomas Cloonen, who is also an assistant athletic director and physical education/health teacher at Monsignor McClancy High School in Queens, was excited at the prospect of not only having the league experience such a first, but just his program playing baseball this season led by nine seniors, four of whom had committed to Division II colleges.
“We ended up playing a scrimmage, and before that game, I said, ‘Listen, enjoy this, especially you seniors, because I don’t know when we’re gonna be out here again,’” Cloonen said, recalling a team meeting he held before the game to inform his seniors that COVID-19 could potentially place the season on an indefinite pause. “Enjoy everything that you’re doing because you don’t know when it’s going to be taken away from you.”
Cloonen, a McClancy alum and former baseball player at the school in his own right, also recalled the exact practice where the seriousness of coronavirus first registered on the team’s radar.
“We started March 7 as our first official day of practice. A week later we were preparing for our first scrimmage,” he remembered.
“I was talking to the principal and the A.D. and they said, ‘Listen, you may not have any games,’” he recalled. “That’s when it really hit. Then you start seeing people getting sick and people going to the hospital. I have practice plans right now that are sitting on my desk, but I feel for those kids as a graduate of McClancy who experienced, not just a baseball season, but prom, graduation and all that stuff.”
And regarding the state of the team currently, Cloonen marveled at how his group of teenagers have handled dealing with the likely lost season.
“But here’s the amazing part, they’ve checked in on me,” he said “For them to come out and reach out me first, it really shows you the type of kids that I have and the type of kids in general that McClancy produces. That’s what makes it so satisfying coaching these kids.”
Unfortunately, with the likelihood of a lost 2020 season, the experimental state championship will not only be put on hold until 2021, but Grillo hints at the possibility of it not taking place at all whenever an eventual return to action takes place.
“I suspect we’re gonna see a lot of changes to a lot of things based on how schools in general react to getting into the swing of things,” Grillo acknowledged. “I’d love to see this model actually work for a season just to do it.
We’ve put an awful lot of time in just to make this work,” said Grillo. “And unfortunately the rug kind of got pulled out from under us with this virus . But when we agreed to do this for 2020, everyone agreed that this would be a one-year pilot, we weren’t making any promises beyond 2020.”
As expected, schools from upstate initially resisted the prospect of the crossover state championship due to length of travel and finding the right time period – seasons upstate are slightly longer – which Grillo pointed to as a leading factor in the delay.
Grillo also points out that sports as a whole are obviously on the back burner right now in favor of public health.
Cloonen shared a similar sentiment.
“Right now, I’m just really concerned for my kids, their families, and honestly, McClancy in general,” he offered. “We have students and faculty that may have been impacted by this that we don’t even know about. That’s what I’m more concerned about.”