Serra quarterback Daylin McLemore exhibited the spirit of the Class of 2020.
Casey Manuel/Prep2Prep

A letter to the Class of 2020

June 10, 2020

I graduated from high school in 2014, and, as is common, I often look dismissively on cultural trends among younger generations. From clothing and hairstyles to dance trends, it’s easy to have a negative view towards kids growing up now.

I thought TikTok was stupid even before it was revealed to be subject to surveillance from the Chinese government and was full of racist material, I have no idea who most of the new rappers are and I think Baby Yoda is the worst meme of all time. A character has to serve a purpose beyond being cute. Every time I hear the term “chicky nuggies” used, I want to commit a felony.

With these cultural observations in mind, it would be easy to look down on today’s high schoolers, even though I’m just a few years older. But man, did I enjoy the Class of 2020.

I’ve written about high school sports in all but my first year since graduating, including the last three for Prep2Prep. Combining my time as a student and time as a media member, I’ve now had interactions with 10 different graduating classes of seniors. This included the group that helped me feel welcome at Burlingame after a miserable middle school experience with many of the same people, people that I knew from my brother’s age group (he graduated in 2018) and those currently finishing their time in high school from their own homes.

Of all of those, the Class of 2020 is definitely the one in which I had the fewest pre-existing personal connections. Aside from a couple siblings of friends and athletes and a couple of family friends, there were almost no familiar names or faces among the players and teams I wrote about across multiple sports.

With few personal connections and minimal emotional attachment, I thought this would be a year in which I sat back, watched games and didn’t get too invested in how it unfolded. Boy, was I wrong. A group of kids that had been through three years of high school took the reins and made the 2019-20 season their own, even as it was cut short.

You had Eagle Scouts dominating as athletes, kids that didn’t even log a minute of playing time leading elaborate celebrations in student sections and all sorts of people from every background imaginable brought together amidst the background of sports, that beautiful thing that brings people together amidst any and all circumstances.

Except this one. Very few things can stop sports from progressing in their normal timeline. A gigantic wildfire? Just push the games scheduled in that week to the end of the season. Only a global war could stop sports ... that is, until an incredibly contagious pandemic spread across the globe.

It was something that I took a long time to come to terms with. I thought it was all overblown. The death rates weren’t that high. That was before I realized how contagious it was. Sure, nearly all teens and young adults infected would be fine. But if something wasn’t done, the same couldn’t be said for those with pre-existing conditions that impeded one’s health. Kids with Down syndrome, whose smiles bring light and joy to all of us, often deal with heart and lung conditions. If the virus spread without any resistance, it would pass quickly, but vulnerable populations like those with Down syndrome would be severely affected.

Over the course of the 2019-20 school year and athletic season, I found myself more captivated than ever before by high school sports. It wasn’t that the players were that much better in past years – sure, there was a lot of talent in the area, as evidenced by the waves of college scholarships – or that the games themselves were that great. It was the people who made it happen.

From the St. Ignatius football team that united a school behind a program that had been dormant for years to the Riordan basketball squad that featured a pair of four-year starters and played before packed houses almost every night, the seniors who finished their time in high school in 2020 were a special group because of the thrill rides they took us on and the way they brought us into their lives.

Yes, the kids at SI and Riordan were tremendous stories, but they were far from the only ones. At Serra, quarterback Daylin McLemore had waited as a backup for years, finally got his chance to start and broke his collarbone in the team’s eighth game, only to make a heroic return in the state championship game before suffering another injury.

Lowell’s football team, a punchline on campus, clinched a playoff spot for the first time since 2013. A Monte Vista basketball team with far less talent than in past years managed to grab an elusive win over De La Salle and sweep crosstown foe San Ramon Valley.

There were team managers who suited up on Senior Night after four years of work behind the scenes, and there were managers who never even put on a uniform on that one night but still helped their programs along. Kids volunteering as PA announcers, like Aragon student Anthony Remedios, and benchwarmers who knew their impact would be felt not in playing time but in the ways they could impact the starters’ performances, made this group so special.

Perhaps the best testament to the Class of 2020 was the repeated instances in which kids were forced to deal with losses. Riordan basketball didn’t have the dream season that was envisioned, forced to settle for a shared WCAL title and getting bounced in the quarterfinals of the CCS Open Division.

League rival Bellarmine once again suffered heartbreak in a CCS championship game and the state tournament. Serra football fell short of a state crown, Sequoia basketball couldn’t put anything in the trophy case and Branham had a great year on the gridiron, only to come up a point shy of a section crown.

The players and coaches from all of those teams still opened up amidst their heartbreak, sharing their analysis of the games and emotions they lived through to let fans understand how they felt. Almost all locker rooms are silent after a loss, but the factors that create that silence can differ widely. Each have their own backstory. It would be easy for coaches and players, especially teens who haven’t dealt with tremendous adversity, to dismiss an amateur reporter who wants to shed light on their heartbreak, but time and time again, the people who made the Class of 2020 so endearing were willing to elaborate on some of their most trying moments.

It wasn’t just these stories, though. There are so many others that could be given full-length documentaries, like Cal Ladine and Rishi Raghavan bringing Lowell a boys basketball crown for the first time since 2009, Carl Richardson leading Salinas football to an outright league championship and Hillsdale’s CCS hoops title.

Legends were being made left and right, with successful programs adding to already-jam-packed trophy cases and those that had never gotten much attention entering uncharted territory. Every single one of those stories had one common theme: the kids at the center of it were opening windows to look into their lives.

Across hundreds of schools and thousands of teams, this year’s senior class became overwhelmingly full of great conversations and exchanges, from profound answers to postgame questions to Twitter messages asking for opinions on a foul call. All of that makes what’s happened to the outgoing high schoolers as a result of a global pandemic all the more tragic.

Finishing high school isn’t just about getting a piece of paper while wearing a silly hat or wearing a tuxedo for a dance. Seeing overexuberant families honk horns and throw confetti at graduations will always be amusing, and Sir Edward Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” will always be an obnoxious song that mars an otherwise happy occasion, and prom night will always be an outrageously expensive endeavor that presents teens with the opportunity to make damaging decisions which will shape their future, but the Class of 2020 will have to experience these things through computer and phone screens.

Yes, schools are doing what they can to help students have as much of a “normal” experience as they can. From teachers and other faculty members delivering signs for graduates to online ceremonies and some schools making promises of an official event when mass gatherings are considered acceptable again, there is, at least, an attempt to give students a modified version of the formalities and events they had planned on going through.

It’s a nice gesture, one that shows they care about their kids. The officials who did everything in their power to try to let kids play sports should be heralded for the care they showed, as should those who are continuing to try to create normalcy in a world where the only guarantee is that advertisements will include the phrase, “in these uncertain times.”

Still, it’s no substitute for what the outgoing seniors were supposed to experience. The final weeks of high school are supposed to be filled with fun activities in the final weeks before classmates who were together for as many as 13 years split off in thousands of different directions. Kids who entertained audiences with their athletic accomplishments and gave onlookers a glimpse into their lives are watching their experiences come to an end from afar.

It is absolutely vital that the Class of 2020 doesn’t become a lost generation, with all sorts of integral experiences wiped out by growing up at the wrong time. This group is too special to simply gloss over.

Reactions to the pandemic have put leadership qualities, both good and bad, on display for all to see. While some governing bodies have kept citizens safe, taken reasonable precaution and made efforts to try to make the problems currently afflicting the world as brief and minor as possible, others have made horrible decisions.

From Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer’s poorly written executive order that outlawed the selling of gardening supplies while allowing lottery tickets to the immunity granted to police officers who aren’t working to protect their communities, plenty of bad leadership has been on display.

It’s a scary time to grow up, and not just because of COVID-19 or killer hornets. There are plenty of other reasons to be scared. Every day, more and more people put themselves in ridiculous situations, whether it’s a reckless driver swerving across lanes or an unprepared couple having a baby.

What I have seen in the Class of 2020 is a refreshing change of pace from these grim situations. These are responsible, intelligent and well-rounded people who are going to make the world a better place, both for themselves and for others, from Eagle Scouts and community leaders to role players who get the job done when a starter is injured. It just makes the current situation even more unfortunate, as it’s depriving some excellent kids of great experiences.

When it comes to figuring out how to approach a pandemic, it’s important to remember that there’s more than just data to look at. A virus can’t only be analyzed by the number of cases and deaths. People are more than just numbers, and the Class of 2020 is a great reminder of that.

There are outstanding young people being deprived of great experiences right now, and seeing these experiences pass them by is all the more devastating because the kids in question are more than just numbers.

Scoreboards didn’t sum up just how special this group is. There’s a lot more than that, from the conversations that go on well after the rest of the stadium has emptied out to the Twitter messages joking about teammates. The kids graduating now are more than just numbers, and as this situation advances, that must be remembered.

For all that isn’t happening right now for the Class of 2020, I do hope something is done to help give the kids a chance to get hailed as the excellent people they are. Whether that’s an after-the-fact grad night event put on at an amusement park or the nights in coming years that will be spent retelling stories over drinks, this group was, is, and will continue to be special.

It’s been great to work alongside all of you. I’m sure this won’t be the last I hear of this group. With future political leaders, CEOs, entrepreneurs and role models aplenty, I’m excited to see kids that I was already acquainted with through sports become household names.

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