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The Day Sports Stood Still

03/15/2020, 5:30pm CDT
By Travis Wilson

The Resch Center, largely empty, awaits the beginning of what proved to be the end of the winter sports season

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Frustration. Anger. Confusion. Fear. Sadness.

That was the reaction late Thursday night when what seemed impossible just days earlier became the inevitable with the announcement by the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association that all remaining winter sports tournaments, including boys sectional finals and the state tournament along with the remaining two days of the girls state tournament, would be canceled immediately.

Sitting in the 10,000-seat Resch Center arena with a handful of remaining media members waiting for the WIAA's announcement following the exciting 57-55 overtime win for Melrose-Mindoro over Mishicot (video of what turned out to be the final play of the season below) was a surreal experience, but seems ages ago with the news that has flowed non-stop in the days and hours since.

What began for most people in the country with the closure of conference tournaments to fans and escalated into the full-scale suspension or cancelation of virtually all major high school, college, and professional athletics is but a footnote in history as the country and world at large deal with the impact and response to the rapidly escalating situation around the COVID-19 coronavirus.

Friday began with an announcement by the WIAA that spring sports would not be impacted but remained up to the discretion of local schools, but that notion was quickly dismissed when later in the afternoon, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers ordered the closure of all schools in the state beginning by at least Wednesday, through at least April 6th.

Social distancing, flattening the curve, and dealing with panicked shoppers have become the emphases, with the continually evolving situation leading to stricter limitations on large gatherings, more rigid travel restrictions, and closures of restaurants and other gathering establishments in many parts of the country.

It is a worrisome time for many, understandably, and in so many ways, the unfortunate early ending of winter high school athletics has taken a backseat to the life-and-death circumstances emphasized by health professionals.

It does not make the abrupt end any easier to process. Players, coaches, and fans have reacted passionately, including to our Mark Miller, about the cancelation of the tournaments. Understandably, many are critical of the decisions. They're incredibly hurt by the sudden end. They're trying to grapple with how to understand, accept, and move on.

It was and is a shock. It was unthinkable just days earlier. But as the week, days, and hours progressed, it became clear it was something that was inevitable.

When Rudy Gobert tested positive, and the NBA immediately suspended its season, the writing was on the wall for all sports. Leagues, conferences, and groups, including the WIAA, made incremental adjustments to try to keep things going. This included following health department guidelines around proper personal hygiene and cleaning, limitations on large gatherings, and more. They were reasonable, they were rationale, they were within recommendations. And it is sensible to feel that could have continued to occur for a few more days.

However, when the NBA season was suspended, and collegiate conference tournaments were canceled, and the NHL season was suspended, and the NCAA championships were canceled, and the University of Wisconsin would not allow use of the Kohl Center, and numerous other state high school associations canceled tournaments, the pressure on everyone else with remaining tournaments became too great. It was simply not feasible to be the "last one standing", or risk not only the health of the attendees, but the ridicule and scorn of the larger community.

It was an anguished decision; the distress of the looming impact visible on the faces of Executive Director Dave Anderson and the rest of the WIAA staff. They were about to make an unprecedented decision that would bring an end to the careers of hundreds of athletes, and a sudden stop to something they've dedicated their lives to being a part of and celebrating.

That criticism still came, as expected, in what was a lose-lose situation for the WIAA. They were criticized by some for not canceling the tournaments earlier. They were criticized for limiting fan attendance. They were criticized for canceling the tournaments. They were criticized for not canceling spring sports. They were criticized for canceling the winter sports tournaments but not canceling the spring sports.

All of this was proven a moot point as the news has continued to come out in recent days, with school closings in place by Wednesday for all of the state and beginning on Monday for many schools. With schools closed, both WIAA regulations and requirements by the state of Wisconsin mean there can be no extra-curricular activities to include practices and competitions.

Currently, the state of Wisconsin closures are set to remain through April 6th, though some schools previously announced closures beyond that. It would not be a surprise to see those timelines extended, and the further disruption to spring sports seems very likely.

The news and impacts have changed not just daily, but hourly. As things evolve, we will continue to keep you up-to-date on changes and what they will mean. 

But high school sports will be back. "When" is the unknown part.

At which time, as we sign off each episode of our WSN Podcast with, we'll see you at a game.

About the Author

Travis Wilson serves as the General Manager, Football Editor, and contributing writer for other parts of the site. Wilson was selected as part of the Sports 40 Under 40 list by Coach & AD Magazine and the National High School Athletic Coaches Association for 2019. The Wisconsin Football Coaches Association (WFCA) named Travis the 2015 recipient of the Dave McClain Distinguished Service Award. He currently serves on the WFCA Executive Board as the Website and Communications Director and is a member of the Executive Board of the Wisconsin Basketball Coaches Association. A graduate of Richland Center High School and Mount Mercy College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Travis was a three-sport athlete in high school (football, baseball, basketball) and currently resides in Reedsburg. You can follow him on Twitter at @travisWSN.

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