Coach Cory Haese had the Wrightstown Tigers just one win away from the team's first-ever State Tournament appearance
Sectional Final Saturday was eerily quite across the state of Wisconsin yesterday.
Forty boys' basketball teams hoping to qualify for one of 20 spots in the 2020 Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association State Tournament stayed home instead of taking part in a game most would remember for the rest of their lives.
Late Thursday evening, a few hours after teams had qualified for the sectional finals, the WIAA opted to cancel the remainder of the season.
COVID-19's meteoric rise across the United States ended the state-tournament dreams for players, coaches, parents and fans a mere nine days before the scheduled end of the 2019-20 campaign.
The writing was on the wall when the WIAA opted to limit attendance at sectional semifinal games Thursday to 88 fans per school plus team personnel. And when the NCAA opted to cancel its tournaments and both the NBA and NHL suspended play until further notice, it was all but over for Wisconsin's high-school aged players and their quest to win a state championship.
Indeed, March 12, 2020 will go down as perhaps the darkest day in Wisconsin high school basketball history. Never before has the WIAA cancelled its state boys' basketball tournament, a consecutive string that dates back to 1916.
COVID-19, a disease caused by a strain of coronavirus, has claimed lives across the globe and limiting large social gatherings is one concrete way to help slow the spread of the pandemic.
Governor Tony Evers state-wide decision to have all public school districts closed by Wednesday further cemented the seriousness of the situation and made playing the state tournament impossible even if the WIAA had not made the decision to cancel the event.
"I know the WIAA did not take this decision lightly," said Stratford coach Curt Schmidt, who guided the Tigers to a 66-50 victory over Auburndale in the sectional semifinal. "I also know that something has to be very serious in order to take such extreme measures to protect the safety of all people. It's costing sports lots of money; so it is clearly serious enough.
"So it is best for all people to become unified in a crisis instead of the easy response of second-guessing people in leadership positions."
Schmidt's club at Stratford finishes the season with a 24-0 record, but the school has never qualified for the WIAA State Tournament. A win over Iola-Scandinavia in the sectional final would have improved the Tigers' mark to 49-1 over the past two seasons, including a pair of Marawood South Conference titles.
"What has made it most difficult for the kids is the hard work to make their dreams to play for a state championship come true only to see a pandemic impede their ultimate goal," Schmidt said. "It was also very difficult to win a very big sectional game only to find out later that night that the rest of the season is cancelled.
"There is no closure. Our team was fortunate enough to be undefeated at 24-0 in a very difficult conference, and we were playing our best basketball right now. The players, coaches and community are taking this very hard."
Although Rib Lake advanced to the WIAA State Tournament twice in the past (1951 & 1986), the Redmen would have become the first team in the long history of the event to have a female as head coach had they defeated Wabeno/Laona in a sectional final.
Carrie Ewan, the mother of star senior guard Levi Ewan, helped Rib Lake improve to 22-4 record after the Redmen defeated Pittsville in the sectional semifinals.
Levi Ewan, the Player of the Year in the Northern Division of the Marawood Conference, feels the WIAA should have postponed the state tournament to a later date rather than cancelling the event.
"I strongly disagree with the WIAA cancelling before postponing the tournament," he said. "To make the decision to cancel so abruptly was not the way to handle this situation, in my opinion. If they would have postponed, maybe other ideas and options could have been visited in order to figure out a way to finish these games. I’m upset, along with many other players, coaches, and fans, with the WIAA's decision to cancel before postponing."
The players at Unity High School agree with Ewan's comments...
@wiaawi Can we PLEASE postpone the WIAA Postseason? We would be MORE than willing to resume the tournament ANYTIME it is safe to do so. We would play in any gym, in front of any number of fans. Our players have spent YEARS prepping for this and would wait as long as it takes.— UnityBoysBasketball (@UnityBoysBB) March 15, 2020
It's safe to say every player on the 40 teams still alive in the tournament at the time of the WIAA announcement feels short changed.
Playing on the state's biggest stage, in front of the biggest crowds of the season and for a potential state championship is just something you cannot put a price tag on. And to have it taken away, even if the decision is justifiable, is heart wrenching.
Kimberly senior point guard Jake Buchanan accurately summed up the feelings of most with the following comments...
"The toughest part when hearing about the WIAA decision was knowing I’d never have a chance to bring Kimberly a state appearance or state championship," said Buchanan, who scored 16 points, grabbed four rebounds and dished out three assists in the Papermakers' win over Eau Claire North in the sectional semifinal. "The entire off-season, my teammates and I worked so hard with the goal of reaching state always being a motivating factor. When I heard that our season was going to be cut short of our dreams of possibly reaching state and competing for a state title, I was instantly heartbroken.
"It hurts more than I ever thought it would because with the team we had, we could’ve done something really special. While I know everyone from Kimberly was counting on us to finally make a state run, we did everything we could. The thing that hurts the most, though, is that I’ll never get another game with my brothers and I’ll never get to know what we could’ve done."
ONE GAME AWAY
Kimberly has a rich tradition in boys' basketball, qualifying for the WIAA State Tournament 12 times. But the last appearance in Madison took place in 2007, and the Papermakers have lost some very close and emotional sectional final games since their last showing at the Kohl Center.
Wrightstown, on the other hand, is like Stratford. Coach Cory Haese had positioned his club one win away from the school's first state-tournament appearance after beating Xavier in a sectional semifinal Wednesday.
Now, the members of this year's Tigers' 24-1 squad never will get the chance to make school history.
"I'm sure the hurt feelings by our players is very similar to the hurt feelings of all 40 teams that were still alive in the WIAA playoffs," Haese said. "Our players and staff, while incredibly disappointed, recognize the severity of the situation and the bigger picture. My staff and I are incredibly proud of the character of these young men and the focus was that we got to end the season on a win. The resilience and composure our young men have shown has been nothing short of amazing."
Beloit Turner, Luther, Hortonville, Milwaukee Academy of Science, Wabeno/Laona and Wauwatosa West also would have qualified for the WIAA State Tournament for the first time in program history with victories in the sectional finals.
The razor-sharp emotions of having a successful season come to a crashing halt has not subsided for some. Levi Ewan, along with many others, believes strongly the 40 teams left in the tournament should have the chance to end things on the court.
"The toughest part is the idea that we feel the opportunity to play on the state floor was completely stolen from us," Ewan said. "I feel like they did not consider players when they made their decision. I would have rather played with no fans than not play at all. It was also tough that we didn’t know we were playing our last game and we couldn’t soak it all in. Finding out by social media was wrong."
Buchanan, on the other hand, said the situation over the past few days has actually made a very close team even closer as the season comes to an end.
"My teammates and I have tried to make the most of what happened by bonding and sticking together like we did all season," Buchanan said. "Our team gathered the next day at school after we all heard about the news to discuss all the amazing memories we created and the things that will be unforgettable. Obviously, we know that the most important thing is the safety of the people and that should always come first, too. It is heart warming to know that even though our career didn’t end how we wanted, we are able to make a positive difference."