BILLINGS — Ed Kriskovich remembers the highs and the lows from the 1996 high school softball season.
The retired Billings West coach, who led the Golden Bears to three state titles and over 500 victories in his career, also remembers life lessons learned during that season.
While it’s hard to compare 1996 to 2020, when the Montana High School spring sports season was canceled on Wednesday due to the novel coronavirus and in-school study was shut down to limit the spread of COVID-19, there may be some similarities in human feelings and wisdom to be gained.
In 1996, the Class AA and A state softball tournaments to be played at Stewart Park in Billings were rained out. On Thursday, steady rain had led to a postponement.
By Saturday, despite an all-out effort to prepare fields, Mother Nature won out. At one point, workers had three fields ready to play, but it started to drizzle again.
If the tournament had any chance to continue, games would have to be played well into the night. However, the playable fields — two in the Heights and one at Stewart Park — didn’t have lights.
Budgetary concerns came into play as teams would have to spend another night in a hotel, and the weather forecast also was a factor. Graduations and other functions were also upcoming.
The wet weather made for unsafe conditions for the players. The outfield surface, balls and bats would all have been rather slippery if play were attempted.
As a result, there were no state champions in Class AA and A that year.
The Bears were one of the AA favorites, earning the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.
“It was a big disappointment. We got all that rain at one time and couldn’t play,” remembered Kriskovich, who retired as Billings West’s coach at the conclusion of the 2016 season after 31 years. “It was a heartbreaker to the kids. We knew we had a good chance. We had a great team.”
Kriskovich said that 1996 squad had “good hitting and good pitching” and some of the players went on to play in college. While his squad was disappointed in how the season ended, Kriskovich was proud of how the players handled the situation.
“I can’t say enough about the kids we had and how positive they were and how hard they worked,” Kriskovich recalled in a phone conversation with 406mtsports.com on Thursday. “They were a pretty mature group of kids and handled it well.”
A longtime special-education teacher who retired in 2010 from the classroom, Kriskovich said his players moved on from the sting of the canceled championships.
“After it was done, it’s like anything, they get on with their lives and contribute to the community in other ways,” he said. “I don’t think you ever forget it, it’s a disappointment, but you get over several of those in life.”
Kriskovich, who will celebrate his 80th birthday on April 28, stays busy these days conducting pitching lessons for those ages 12 through high school and coaching softball at Will James Middle School. He also attends high school softball games as a fan.
He stays connected to West High, in part, by visiting with his granddaughter, Jessyka Hultgren, who starred at West long before she was married as Jessyka MacDonald, and is now a coach at the school. Kriskovich knows several current softball players and feels bad for them, and all the other spring sports participants whose seasons were canceled.
“I’m sure the kids had their hearts set on getting some games done,” he said, adding “hopefully they can play some summer ball.”
For seniors who plan to play in college, Kriskovich advised “don’t shut it off,” and for them to continue to work on their skills during the down time. He said that was important for the lower three grade levels as well.
Some players have traditionally attended camps for other sports in the summer, and if it is deemed safe and camps are held, that is good, too, he said.
Kriskovich said the right decision was made in canceling the season.
“The coronavirus is a hazard and you don’t want to expose kids,” he said. “They say it doesn’t affect kids, but once is enough, especially if you lose your life.”
While players are probably hurting right now, Kriskovich said many are looking to the future knowing at some point they’ll be able to perform again. In his communications, Kriskovich said he found out many players and parents “knew the writing was on the wall,” and they were preparing for possible summer ball opportunities knowing the high school season likely would be canceled.
“They are smart enough to know they don’t want to jeopardize themselves and others,” he said. “They are above and beyond that.
“All pain, you get over it eventually. The kids are smart enough to know it’s a game and the game of life goes on for a long time.”
And, while there has been disappointment for spring sports athletes that will probably remain for a long time, Kriskovich said during times of distress he tries to remember “life goes on no matter what happens. My philosophy is you only live once, so make the best of what happens.”