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Athlete Voices: A Dream Denied

04/02/2020, 11:45am CDT
By Travis Wilson

Platteville and Wrightstown get together for a final photo from the canceled WIAA Girls Basketball State Tournament

This is the first of a multi-part series examining the impact of the coronavirus outbreak and ensuing impact on high school athletes. Stay tuned for more content of various types in the coming days and weeks.

The State Tournament. It is the dream of tens of thousands of high school athletes every year, yet only a select few are able to achieve that lofty goal. 

While it has always been limited to the best of the best, that dream has always remained tangible. Something that, in the current system, was attainable for 20 boys and 20 girls basketball teams every season. 

However, in the late night hours of Thursday, March 12th, in the face of a growing pandemic that has drastically altered every aspect of society, the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association made the agonizing decision to end that dream for 40 remaining boys basketball teams, and bring to an abrupt end a girls basketball state tournament that saw just four of 15 games completed.

The WIAA Boys Basketball State Tournament had been played every year since 1916, surviving the Spanish Flu epidemic, World World War I, and World War II. The Girls Basketball State Tournament had been played every year since its inception in 1976.

The cancelation of the remaining winter sports contests seemed wholly impossible just a few days earlier, but a steady crescendo of events and government guidelines led to an air of inevitability by Thursday afternoon.

While the ramifications of the coronavirus outbreak are severe and impacting the health and livelihood of millions of Americans, the individual impacts on the high school athletes in Wisconsin cannot be overlooked.

Years of working with teammates and coaches, hundreds of hours of practice and preparation this season alone, all building to the potentially once-in-a-lifetime chance to play on the big stage at the Resch Center or Kohl Center. A chance that for some, ended with no closure. There was no season-ending loss. No last time walking off the court. No final hugs for teammates and coaches. No tears in the locker room. 

So, how are the impacted athletes handling this time? What was the experience of that week like? How are they moving forward?

We reached out to a number of boys and girls basketball athletes to get their perspectives and share their stories. Below are their curated responses.


Participants

Jordan Berglin, Junior Girls Basketball Player, Pewaukee

Brye Hardel, Junior Boys Basketball Player, Iola-Scandinavia

Zach Hietpas, Senior Boys Basketball Player, New Berlin Eisenhower

Gage Johnson, Senior Boys Basketball Player, Luck

Sami Martin, Senior Girls Basketball Player, Platteville

Chandler Schmidt, Senior Boys Basketball Player, Stratford

Max Weisbrod, Sophomore Boys Basketball Player, DeForest


What was that week of March 9th like for you in the lead-up to games?

Jordan Berglin, Pewaukee: "Everything seemed perfect. No one could touch us. We were on Cloud-9. At that time, COVID-19 was almost seen as a 'joke' and there was no way it would impact our first chance at a state title. There was nerves, but everyone was stoked to get the chance to take down Beaver Dam."

Brye Hardel, Iola-Scandinavia: "I thought of it in the back of my mind, but I didn’t really believe winter sports would be affected. I just hoped that we would be able to finish the season."

Zach Hietpas, New Berlin Eisenhower: "We never really had that feeling that this virus could affect us until the day of the sectional semifinal game. We got the notice that only 88 people were going to be allowed at the games. We believed there was still a chance, but at shoot-around our coach told us that it could be our last game win or lose."

Gage Johansen, Luck: "It was a pretty slow week as we were all anxious to play in the Sectional-Semi game coming up, but as we moved further into the week the realization of not being able to continue our season whether we won or lost was starting to sink in. As the week went on we continuously heard rumors and saw social media posts talking about the cancellation of the rest of the State Tournament. Although we were all hopeful and optimistic that we would be able to go a few more days to get to play in the Sectional-Final for a trip down to Madison the following week, it was still in the back of our minds."

Sami Martin, Platteville: "It was extremely thrilling knowing that we are the second team in Platteville history to make it to the state tournament. The Platteville community was exceptionally supportive of us throughout the entire season and it was awesome to know that we had that community support during that exciting week leading up to state. We knew our team had the potential to accomplish something magnificent and this year was going to be something special because we all had one goal in mind and we were going to achieve it for the first time in 36 years, together."

Chandler Schmidt, Stratford: "Obviously we were pumped. I have been playing with my teammates since third grade and we all had a common goal and that was to get to the Kohl Center. We had a mentality that no one was going to get in our way. We wanted to make school history as well. Going into that week we were confident and determined to accomplish our goal."

Max Weisbrod, DeForest: "The lead up was just like any other week until the day of the sectional Semi-Final game. Around second period we found out there would be no fans. We all were kind of mad because we knew this would be the most packed game we’ve ever played in. But we just had to accept it and just lock in."

When & how did you find out that the rest of the WIAA basketball tournament had been canceled?

Berglin: "Our lights out was 11 pm. We were in our rooms, getting ready for bed, even a couple people were sleeping, when we heard a bunch of noise in the hall. We went out to make sure everyone was asleep, but someone had a tweet saying that the tournament got cancelled. I was constantly refreshing the WIAA twitter and then at 11:12 pm, an official tweet was sent out that our games would no longer be played."

Hardel: "We beat Lourdes Academy Thursday night, and were set to play Stratford that Saturday. I found out around 11 pm after I got back from the Lourdes game."

Hietpas: "I probably found out around 11:00 pm on Twitter the night of the sectional semifinals just saying that everything has been canceled."

Johansen: "We were on our way home from our Sectional Semi-Final game that was held at Hayward High School when we saw the WIAA had tweeted out that the remainder of the winter sports seasons would be canceled."

Martin: "I was laying in our hotel room around 11 pm on Thursday night after winning the state Semi-Final game, along with my teammates Morgan and Becca, when I saw a post on Twitter that the remainder of state the tournament had been cancelled. I ran down to the other senior girls’ rooms and we sat in the hallway and talked about the situation. Then, Coach Foley came out into the hallway and called a team meeting down in the hotel conference room. Coach gave us the devastating news and we sat there as a team and talked about what it meant for the seniors and the rest of the team; it was one of the hardest talks I’ve ever experienced."

Schmidt: "Our team has a group chat. We were all texting in the group chat and my buddy Vaughn Breit was scrolling through Twitter and found the devastating tweet. He screen-shot the tweet and sent it into the chat and we were crushed"

Weisbrod: "I woke up at 10 am the following morning and said, "Dad, what about practice today why didn’t you wake me up?' Then he broke the news to me."

What was your reaction, and what were your feelings when you found out about the cancelation?

Berglin: "Automatically, every single person on our team broke down in tears. From our top starter, to the end of our bench, none of us have ever experienced such pain in our lives. Everything we worked for was down the drain and the seniors that we will never get to play with again, their season ended in a hotel room."

Hardel: "I just felt empty. I couldn’t sleep that night. I just kept thinking, 'Why does this have to happen this year?'."

Hietpas: "I was obviously very distraught. Our team was on a great run in the playoffs and it just ended in the snap of a finger. It was hard for me to think about how I had just played my last game ever that night."

Johansen: "Between my teammates and I, we were all heartbroken. A group of guys who had been playing with each other since third grade. As a kid, you dream of getting the opportunity to play at the Kohl Center in front of that kind of crowd. In my high school career, my team has been to the Sectional-Final two times before this year, last year falling short by just 9 points. This year seemed like it was the year to punch that ticket to Madison and to find out that we would have that chance taken away from us was just heartbreaking. The ultimate goal for my team and I was to make it to State in our final year and to come up short in that kind of way felt so wrong, the countless hours of blood, sweat, and tears put into that final season seemed like it was all for nothing."

Martin: "It was extremely devastating when we found out that our season came to an abrupt end, knowing our goal was well within reach. There were no words to describe how I was feeling, it was almost as if I was living a real-life nightmare. We dealt with the dreadful news and coped with it together as a team, like we did with every other event during the year. We stuck together as a team through everything and that’s what made our team so special."

Schmidt: "After seeing the news on twitter and in our basketball group chat, I started to tear up. My dad and our assistant coach were actually at our dining room table already watching film on our next opponent. I told my Dad, “You might as well stop watching film because our season is over.” My dad and our assistant were obviously in disbelief. I was heart broken and devastated by this horrific news. Growing up my dad and I would always go to state basketball. He would always tell me that he wants me to help him get to state someday. My dad has worked extremely hard to build the Stratford program. That night when we found out about the news I told my dad that all I wanted to do was to get him to the Kohl Center. Being one game away from this goal hit me hard the most because I wanted to get my dad to State."

Weisbrod: "I was crushed. Especially for the seniors. We all knew we had a pretty solid shot to go to the state tournament by the way that we were playing. It was a heartbreak for sure."

In what ways have you/your team tried to process the cancelation news, and what ways have you tried to find closure?

Berglin: "Instead of focusing on the one negative thing that happened to us, instead we focused on the great successes we had over the course of the season. We also had an insanely supportive community behind us and we are all so grateful. I wouldn’t trade the journey we took together for anything, we were such a special group."

Hardel: "We had a team meeting to give the news to everyone that Friday at school, although the whole team already knew. There was talk of an impromptu game we could set up with Stratford, but the team decided there was no point to that."

Hietpas: "There was no easy way to process it. It was something everyone had to deal with. It wasn’t easy for everyone. The way I found closure was our coach, Coach Scott Witt, told us that only one team in Eisenhower history has ended the season with a win and we are the second. Even though it wasn’t a state championship, we ended in a win. He also talked about how our season was incredible and should not be looked at as a failure because we achieved incredible successes."

Johansen: "For the first couple of days, it was pretty hard to find closure in accepting the fact that we wouldn't be playing on the same court together again. Once we got back to school the following week I think it was a little easier when we heard that schools and states were being shut down. Once we realized the severity of the problem at hand we were a little less upset. Although we were all still extremely disappointed we knew that the problem was far out of our control."

Martin: "Our key motto for our team this year was that our team character would be defined by how we react to adversity, knowing that every team will face adversity at some point. We wanted to be the team to stick together and work through adversity better than any other team. When we received the dreadful news, we understood the WIAA’s reasoning for the cancellation of the remainder of the tournament due to safety issues. Our team decided to control what we can control, which our team refers to as the 'controllables'. You can control your attitude, effort, and the way you react to the adversity and obstacles put in your path. To find closure, the final two teams left in the Division 3 State Tournament, Platteville and Wrightstown, got in our uniforms to take one last unified picture at the Resch Center."

Schmidt: "The next day the whole team went to Buffalo Wild Wings. We had a good time talking but we were still in disbelief. We really haven’t had any closure yet because we can’t go anywhere or get together because of the coronavirus."

Weisbrod: "I’ve been saying I have two more years to get back to where we were and make it to state. But for the seniors, I feel terrible."

About the Author

Travis Wilson serves as the WisSports.net 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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