Westhampton Beach’s Season Cut Short

Senior forward Layla Mendoza. Independent/Christine Heeren

Many tears fell inside the Westhampton Beach High School gymnasium where members of its girls basketball team were told their season had abruptly come to an end.

“We all basically just shut down,” senior forward Layla Mendoza said. “I think the state jumped the gun and should’ve at least postponed the games. As a senior, it did hit harder. We were so close to accomplishing our goal, and now it’s gone.”

On March 12, the New York State Public High School Athletic Association announced winter regional and state championships were postponed indefinitely amid concerns over the spread of the coronavirus.

“It is certainly understood that postponing the remaining winter state championships is disappointing, however, the opportunity to participate in a NYSPHSAA championship event does not outweigh our responsibility and obligation to ensure students participate in a healthy and safe environment,” the association said in a statement. “The New York State Public High School Athletic Association will continue to rely upon information from the New York State Department of Health, local health departments, as well as the governor’s office for information and guidance on COVID-19 and its impact upon interscholastic athletics.”

Mendoza, one of two seniors on the team, used to compete on the school’s lacrosse and track and field teams, but has since decided to focus solely on basketball. She tore her ACL and missed the second half of last season, and was devastated by the realization she might not be able to complete her high school career because of something beyond her control. The Hurricanes (22-3) were originally scheduled to compete in the Class A regional final against Locust Valley at St. Joseph’s College March 15. After the announcement it would no longer host outside teams, Westhampton Beach High School decided to welcome its opponent March 13, with limited-to-no spectators. Then, New York State Public High School Athletic Association Executive Director Dr. Robert Zayas sent out a statement about the indefinite postponement.

“It was my goal to complete the winter championships on schedule,” he said. “It has become increasingly more difficult to host these championship events with the number of challenges that have been presented. I also have concerns, not just as the executive director of the New York State Public High School Athletic Association, but as a parent, that students will be participating in an event under circumstances that are not conducive to a quality and beneficial participation experience.”

Zayas said on Twitter late Thursday it was a difficult decision to make, and it also proved challenging to host the championship events “in a manner that would serve as a quality and beneficial participation experience for our student-athletes.”

“Just going home right after school knowing you’re not going to come back for practice . . .” Mendoza said. “It’s going to be hard knowing that there is unfinished business.”

State boys and girls basketball, bowling, and ice hockey championships were all affected. Former Greenport star Ahkee Anderson and Bridgehampton standout Nae’Jon Ward, both seniors, were also supposed to play in the regional final as first-year players with Center Moriches. The Class B team was originally scheduled to play Hastings at Farmingdale State College. After that college also backed out of its agreement with Section XI, Harrison High School offered to host the game.

Trying to clarify earlier statements saying the indefinite postponement was not necessarily a cancellation, the New York Public High School Athletic Association said: “NYSPHSAA Executive Director Dr. Robert Zayas will continue to evaluate the situation and do his best to determine the future of winter championships as soon as possible with input from the membership and executive committee. Dr. Zayas is cautiously optimistic the winter state championships will be conducted for our student-athletes. Winter sport teams may continue to practice at the approval of their school district. If and when winter state championships are able to resume, teams will be provided ample time to practice and prepare.”

If winter sport student-athletes want to start spring sport practices, it is a local school district and/or section decision, the NYSPHSAA said, adding it has no rules preventing a student from participating in two seasons at the same time. Section XI also has no rule on the topic.

This year, Belle Smith, Westhampton Beach’s other senior who surpassed 1500 and 2000 points this season, and broke the Hurricanes scoring record for males and females, won her first-ever Suffolk County crown. Along with her five years playing basketball, Smith has competed on the volleyball team the past six seasons, and is entering her sixth with the lacrosse team. The school has made it to the Suffolk County title game multiple times in all three sports. It was the basketball team’s first championship win since 2005. The guard said the team’s goal this season was to leave a legacy, and although the Hurricanes may never know what the final outcome might have been, Smith said her team accomplished what it set out to do.

“As much as this run has been a success for our team, we cannot change what has been done,” Smith said. “It’s heartbreaking. We’ve worked five months for this moment and it ended so abruptly. We will take the time to reflect and be grateful — we can never take anything for granted — but the words ‘What if?’ will always linger.”

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