DULUTH — Parents cheered — and one mom rang a cowbell — as the 11 members of the Duluth Marshall girls’ basketball team filed off the bus Friday afternoon wearing their gray-blue state tournament sweatshirts.
Puffy-eyed players cracked smiles, surprised by the welcome. Kevin Snyder, athletic director for the Duluth college prep school, had hoped to gather the entire student body to greet the team after the 2½-hour trek from the Twin Cities. But an hour earlier, Gov. Tim Walz had declared a state of emergency, recommending Minnesotans limit large gatherings because of the COVID-19 outbreak.
Instead, someone ran and bought a pair of sheet cakes from the grocery store. The small reception group hooted and hollered louder as Marshall’s first girls’ basketball team to make the state tournament in 20 years walked through the front doors of the building that houses their home court.
What more could they do for the tight-knit squad whose shot at the Class 2A state title was ripped away by a global pandemic?
“We’re super sad, super disappointed,” coach CJ Osuchukwu said. When the Minnesota State High School League announced Friday morning that it was canceling remaining winter state tournaments, his team was just two games from winning it all.
On Wednesday, after Marshall upset No. 3 seed New London-Spicer in a close quarterfinal game, Osuchukwu looked at his players and said: “We have an actual shot at winning this.”
After a 26-5 season, the team was scheduled to play Providence Academy at 8 p.m. Friday. A victory would have earned them a spot in the state championship game Saturday afternoon in Williams Arena.
The athletes were preparing to leave their hotel to go to a University of St. Thomas gym Friday when Osuchukwu looked on Twitter and learned the tournament was called off.
It was worse than a loss for the coach. “We didn’t get to go out on our own terms,” he said.
Rick Mrozik, father of junior forward Merlea Mrozik, described the Marshall team’s season as “almost a Cinderella story.” It was only 26-year-old Osuchukwu’s second year leading the program, and the roster was relatively small.
“I always compare them to the team from ‘Hoosiers,’ ” Mrozik said. “They could be down the whole game, but they’d keep battling and keep battling. They never gave up.”
Osuchukwu said he thinks his team will be “extra hungry” next year. All the players are returning but one — senior Grace Kirk, a top scorer who will play for Brown in the Ivy League next year.
Back in the high school entryway, Kirk hugged Osuchukwu as he wiped away a tear. “She’s a player that’s going to be remembered through the whole Northland,” he said.
The day had certainly turned out much different from the coach expected. His mom had planned to fly from Maryland to watch the game, but the airport canceled her flight. Normally, a Marshall team returning from the state tournament would have run through a human tunnel formed by their peers — Snyder called it the “Topper Tunnel,” dubbed so for the school’s Hilltoppers nickname.
But health precautions trumped tradition. Instead, Kirk’s dad, Aaron, yelled: “OK, one more time. Let’s bring it in.”
The 11 players and parents and the coach huddled together in the Marshall entryway, for a moment forgetting about the doctor-prescribed social distancing. They pumped their fists, cheering and jumping in celebration of the team with an unfinished season that, nevertheless, ended with a victory.