2020 pandemic stole area athletes' dreams

Randy Gonzales, Special to The Hays Daily News
The 2019-20 WaKeeney-Trego girls basketball team poses with a Class 2A final four banner. The Golden Eagles advanced to the semis before the rest of the tournament was called off because of COVID-19 concerns.
The Hays High boys basketball team celebrates after beating Topeka Highland Park in the 2020 Class 5A quarterfinals in Emporia. A day later, the Indians' season ended abruptly when the tournament was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Stockton's Ethan Means celebrates after the Tigers knocked off top-seeded Berean Academy in the first round of the Class 1A tournament last year in Dodge City. Stockton didn't get a chance to play in the semifinals when the tournament was canceled because of the pandemic.
Fort Hays State University coach Tony Hobson talks to his team during a timeout in a game last season at Gross Memorial Coliseum in Hays. The Tigers were set to play in the NCAA Division II Central Regional tournament last year before it was canceled because of the pandemic.

It was one year ago Friday when the sports world in Kansas was turned upside down. A day earlier was the one-year anniversary of the novel coronavirus being declared a pandemic. It did not take long for the after-effects to hit home.

A year ago Thursday, the NBA game between the Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder was called off just minutes before tipoff after Jazz center Rudy Gobert learned he had tested positive for COVID-19. The NBA immediately suspended the season. The next day, the NCAA canceled all winter and spring championships, including March Madness.

Caught up in the whirlwind of shutdowns were sports events in Kansas. A year ago Friday, while first-round action was still winding down, the Kansas State High School Activities Association canceled state basketball tournaments. A week later, KSHSAA also canceled spring sports.

Collegiate sports in Kansas also were affected by the NCAA’s decision. Fort Hays State University had five wrestlers at the national tournament in Sioux Falls, S.D., and had participants at the national indoor track meet in Birmingham, Ala.; they were canceled.

An NCAA Division II basketball regional in which the Fort Hays women’s basketball team was scheduled to play also was canceled. The news came down on the eve of the Tigers’ first game, in Warrensburg, Mo.

“The chips just kind of fell really quickly,” FHSU women’s basketball coach Tony Hobson said Wednesday. “I was kind of surprised, but at the same time you could feel that something was in the air.”

One local high school basketball team and two area squads won their first games at their respective state tournaments last year. The Hays High boys, Stockton boys and WaKeeney-Trego girls all saw their seasons come to an end before they had a chance to win a championship.

“It’s something that crosses my mind often,” Hays High boys basketball coach Alex Hutchins said. “I think there’s a lot of sad feelings, because we weren’t able to finish and were left wondering ‘what if.’ ”

The Indians stayed overnight in Emporia after winning their Class 5A quarterfinal game. Word came down earlier in the day that KSHSAA was planning an announcement. The players and coaches were in their motel rooms when the statement hit social media that evening.

“Once the news came, the players reacted immediately,” Hutchins said. “They asked questions we didn’t have answers to. That night was a lot of confusing emotions.”

The HHS team stayed in Emporia that night and returned home to Hays the next day. It was one last chance for the players and coaches to be together and reflect on what might have been.

“I think the biggest thing was just frustration that a potentially once-in-a-lifetime opportunity had been taken away from us,” Hutchins said. “There was a lot of hurt for the seniors, knowing that was how their journey ended and how they weren’t able to finish that ride.”

The Stockton boys also were left wondering how far they could have gone in the Class 1A tournament in Dodge City after knocking off the No. 1 seed in their opener.

“We were peaking at the time,” said Stockton coach Rick Bice, who was an assistant last season. “Not being able to finish was tough.”

The Trego girls had high expectations at last year’s Class 2A state tournament in Manhattan, said Golden Eagle coach Shelby Crawford, who was an assistant then.

“We felt like last year was our year, with two four-year starters along with Lili Shubert, who went over 1,000 points,” Crawford said. “We made it to the final four the year before, and we thought we were a year early.”

The girls team was watching boys' teams play in their state opener when the decision was announced.

“When we heard it was canceled, it was heartbreaking,” Crawford said. “The girls worked hard, we were 23-1. We felt we had all the pieces to bring home a championship. To not get to compete, that’s the hardest part.

“We all felt losing the year before was easier to swallow than not having a chance to compete for it, because there was some closure,” he added. “We’ll just never know about 2020.”

The FHSU women are returning to this year’s NCAA regional, again in Warrensburg, with their first game on Saturday. Before the season started, Hobson had no idea what would happen.

“We were wondering, first of all, if we were going to have one, and second of all, how many games are they going to let us play,” Hobson said. “I really had no idea we would get all the scheduled games in, which was 22. Every team in our conference played 22 games, which was remarkable.

“I’m just really happy we made it back to the regional,” he added. “I had four seniors last year who didn’t get to play in it.”

Whitney Randall, a senior on this year’s Tiger team, remembered what happened last year and wondered what would happen this year.

“I’m just really grateful we got to play this many games, especially because it seemed like at the beginning we weren’t going to be able to get our games in,” Randall said. “We happened to be able to make them up.”

Both Randall and Hobson hoped that the NCAA would allow them to play in the regional last year, since the teams already were there, as opposed to NCAA D-I schools that would play in regionals the following week.

“We were hopeful,” Randall said.

Instead, Hobson had to break the news to his players, who were scattered about; some were napping, and some were studying.

“I’ve got seniors sitting there; their careers are over,” Hobson said. “You have some seniors who are pretty emotional, because they’re done, without any fanfare whatsoever.”

Two of the three seniors on this year’s Tiger squad plan to take advantage of the NCAA allowing them to come back and play an extra season. Randall and point guard Jaden Hobbs will be back, while Madison Mittie’s return would have been difficult due to her academic commitments.

The Hays High boys, Stockton boys and Trego girls all qualified for state again this year, but they all failed to advance past the first round.

HHS was undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the state before losing its state quarterfinal game at home on Tuesday. Hutchins was unsure if the Indians would even be allowed to play before the season.

“We were really concerned, especially early, what this season was going to look like,” Hutchins said. “At the time, we were worried if we were going to be able to play at all.”

Stockton had only nine players out this season and lost one of its top players when his family moved out of town.

“I was pleased we even got to the state tournament,” Bice said.

The KSHSAA changed the tournament format this year. Instead of having quarterfinals at the tourney site, first-round games were played at the higher-seeded team. Stockton lost at Ness City in their opener.

“I know KSHSAA did what they had to do with the state tournament,” Bice said Wednesday. “Last night’s game didn’t feel like a state tournament game.”

The Trego girls saw their season end in their state opener at Sterling. Crawford said the COVID-19 pandemic affected his players not just in basketball. They had their basketball season cut short last year, were not able to compete in track and field last spring, and the volleyball team’s season ended before sub-state due to being quarantined.

“I did not know what the girls’ breaking point was, but I was afraid we were getting close,” Crawford said. “This has been a year where we focused on the ride. However far we got to go on the trip, we were going to enjoy every moment.”

Hutchins pointed to something good that came out of last season’s state basketball tournaments ending with four boys teams and four girls teams still alive in each classification.

“One thing that I think is a positive is there were a lot of teams that finished their seasons with wins, and that’s not common,” Hutchins said. “We’ll never know if we would have won those remaining two games, but we did finish the year on a real positive note.”

Hobson is ready for the new normal, if that means again playing before thousands of Tiger fans. He noted guidelines have changed during the course of the pandemic, and now a vaccine is available. It could help a return to life before COVID-19.

“I hope so,” Hobson said. “It’s so hard to predict what will happen next season. I think everybody wants it back to normal as soon as possible, and still be safe.”