From Henning in the north to Blooming Prairie in the south, the high school basketball state tournament dreams of 60 Minnesota teams abruptly ended Friday morning amid the growing COVID-19 pandemic.
The Minnesota State High School League canceled the remainder of the winter sports state championships.
The girls’ basketball state tournament, with two days left of tournament play, was called off with 12 teams still in the running for titles. Instead, no state champions will be determined in the four classes.
Boys’ basketball section finals, including 16 games scheduled for Friday night, and next week’s four-class state tournament also were canceled. Sixteen teams already had won their sections, celebrating afterward in the belief they would play in Minneapolis starting next Wednesday.
“We recognize the dreams and hopes of the student-athletes, coaches and fans, and to have their seasons end in this manner is extremely emotional,’’ high school league Executive Director Erich Martens said. “We understand. It was a difficult decision.”
The cancellation of the boys’ tournament marks the first time it will not be held since its inception in 1913.
Later Friday the league said spring sports competitions will be delayed until April 6. Practice and tryouts can go on, but no scrimmages or practices involving other schools are permitted.
“The safety of all concerned is paramount,” the league said in a statement.
Reflecting rapidly growing concern about limiting the spread of the virus, the league made four separate announcements within 36 hours, each further restricting tournament and spring sports activity.
The state speech tournament, set for March 15-21, has been postponed indefinitely.
On Saturday Farmington and Hopkins were set to meet in the Class 4A girls’ basketball state tournament title game. Becker and DeLaSalle were to play for the 3A title.
Semifinals in Class 2A and Class 1A were scheduled for Friday at Williams Arena. Initially, all Friday games were to be played before league-mandated limited crowds.
After learning Friday morning the games were canceled, the Rochester Lourdes girls’ basketball team went to Williams Arena to take a souvenir team picture on the court where the Eagles were supposed to play Waseca in a 2A semifinal that evening.
“We’re all very sad. It’s something that you don’t expect,” Lourdes star guard Alyssa Ustby said. “We were at a team camp this summer, I said, ‘Guys, let’s win a state championship this year.’ I knew we could do it. To fall just that short, it’s heartbreaking.”
“It’s pretty devastating,” Lourdes coach Aaron Berg said. “It was a surprise. I really thought the high school league had come to a good conclusion to limit fans. I was comfortable with it. We want to play, no matter what. We’d be willing to play in a junior high with no fans.”
Hopkins coach Brian Cosgriff, whose team was preparing to play Farmington in Saturday’s Class 4A championship game, was candid when asked his feelings about the cancellation.
“It’s a hard pill to swallow,” he said. “I’ve got a bunch of sad kids. To be 36 minutes away from trying to defend your title, I don’t understand it. For it to be over like this is really tragic.”
He said he doesn’t harbor any ill feelings toward the high school league but also wondered if there was an alternative to outright cancellation.
“It’s a situation that’s bigger than us. I’m sure it was a very, very difficult decision,” he said. “But school is still in session. ... I’ve got 19, 20 girls who are shattered, and I don’t know what to say to them except that I love them.”
One of those players — UConn-bound senior guard Paige Bueckers — took to Twitter Friday afternoon, saying, “Heartbroken isn’t even the word to describe the feeling I’m going through right now. … It wasn’t the ending we wanted but the real know.’’
The league was not the only high school governing body to announce the cancellation of athletics Friday.
Others included the Oregon School Activities Association, which suspended practices and games through March 31; the Colorado High School Activities Association, which suspended all spring sports and activities until April 6, and the Kentucky High School Athletic Association, which implemented a “dead period” for all sports and activities through April 12.
The mood among girls’ basketball coaches and teams affected by the cancellation was a mixture of disappointment and acceptance, with questions about the decision sprinkled in.
“I’m a science teacher, so I totally respect and understand the decision,” said Becker coach Dan Baird, whose team was preparing to play DeLaSalle in the Class 3A championship game Saturday. It was the game the Bulldogs had hoped to play all season, having lost to DeLaSalle in the 2019 final.
“Our girls had worked so hard in the offseason that it would have been nice to get the opportunity to play DeLaSalle, but you’ve got to opt for safety first.”
Farmington reached the Class 4A championship game in its first state tournament appearance. Coach Liz Carpentier said she thought the league’s decision to restrict attendance at games was a reasonable compromise.
When the announcement to cancel came, it left Carpentier in “absolute shock,” she said. “My A.D. called at about 10:30, 11 o’clock and said, ‘Did you hear the news?’ It’s a bummer, but you’ve got to do what’s best. It’s worst for the players because they don’t get to showcase all the good things they’ve done on this journey. I don’t think they’re ready to be done yet.”
Some coaches asked why the league didn’t try to reschedule the games in a more isolated environment rather than cancel them altogether.
“If we’re still having school and if kids are still required to be in class, why not treat it like a regular-season game or have it at a neutral site?” Cosgriff asked. “Canceling all the games baffles me.”
Carpentier expressed similar sentiments.
“I don’t understand. We’re still in school and I’m still teaching,” she said. “Why is that OK and it’s not OK to play a basketball game in front of just 90 fans each?”
Martens said the league worked with and followed the lead of the Minnesota Department of Health throughout its decision-making with the fast-moving virus situation.
As of Thursday evening, even after deciding to cancel the adapted floor hockey tournament, the league’s plan to limit spectators and eliminate consolation games in basketball was thought to be “good through the weekend,” Martens said.
But in an 8 a.m. Friday conference call with representatives of the health department and the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, the mission moved from “containment toward community mitigation strategies,’’ he said.
“We considered limiting spectators, no spectators and canceling games and for each situation, we looked at ‘What will this decision create?’ ’’ Martens said.
About 10:20 a.m., league officials made final decision and word went out to venues, coaches and schools.