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‘What now?’ and ‘What next?’: A look at how Michigan’s prep athletes are coping with the ‘pause’ of the postseason, and what it might theoretically take to ‘unpause’

By: MATTHEW B. MOWERY, March 17, 2020, 3:38 pm

For the past seven days, it’s been “What now?” quickly followed by “What’s next?”

Both of those remain pertinent questions, particularly because no definitives have been given for the high school sports seasons in Michigan.

It seems like every 24 hours brought a new (partial) answer to those questions, as the rapidly escalating events of the COVID-19 pandemic forced governing bodies into more and more stern measures to fall in line with the the most current recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), as well as state and federal governments.

First, Wednesday night, there was the plan to continue to play on, only in front of greatly reduced crowds of spectators. 

Then Thursday, the postseasons were put on ‘pause’ by the Michigan High School Athletic Association, as more and more schools began suspending operations, and sending kids home. 

Finally on Friday, all sport-related activities — practices, scrimmages, games, weight training, tryouts, etc. — were banned until at least Sunday, April 5. 

All along, though, the MHSAA has refrained from using the word ‘canceled.’ 

While many other groups — the NCAA and many of its constituent leagues, for example — have canceled the remainder of their winter seasons or their spring sporting seasons, the MHSAA has not … at least not yet.

And that leaves a glimmer of hope.

There’s still hope we could go back and finish off the winter seasons in gymnastics, hockey, boys swimming, as well as girls and boys basketball. There’s still hope we could have track seasons and softball seasons and baseball seasons. Still hope we could have golf, lacrosse and girls soccer. 

Even Tuesday morning, the MHSAA sent out a meme on social media: “Hey, this is hard. Be safe. Stay healthy. When the time is right, We WILL all play again.” 

Again, a message leaving hope in its wake.

It’ll be a long few weeks — or months, in a less optimistic scenario — until we can all resume a sense of normalcy, and get back to what we love to do.

————

It’s already seemed like a month since this started to hit home for most of us last Wednesday. 

Over the last seven days, it’s been a whirlwind of emotions, not only for the players impacted, but for their coaches, as they try to come to grips with a way to deal with it that will best help their players. 

None of it has been easy for them, either.

“I’m entering my 20th year as a travel/high school coach (boys b-ball & girls softball) and more importantly a senior parent, so many things are running through your mind other than playing. Honors Night? Prom? Graduation? Summer school? Online classes? How does it all work? Will everything get pushed back? Canceled?” Livonia Stevenson softball coach Kevin Hannigan explained. 

“I can’t even think about what all the winter sports coaches are saying to their teams — especially the ones who earned the right to compete for the state championship? Again, all questions … no answers. Believe me, we (coaches) must do what’s best for the student/athlete, trust the administration to do the right thing and always trust the process.”

And every time coaches would come up with a plan, with something, another dictate would come along to change things again.

“We had a team yoga session today. I thought it was important for the girls to clear their minds and be able to relax. Tomorrow we we are having a player led senior practice, all fun stuff of their choosing. So most likely they will try and do something to embarrass me. Then Friday night is a team party with video game competition and movie at my house. Saturday off, then back to normal practices Sunday night. We needed to day and tomorrow to get our minds and bodies right so we can come back to work on Sunday,” Midland Dow girls basketball coach Kyle Theisen said Thursday night, before Friday’s announcement changed everything again. “These unfortunate events will bring our team closer together and teach a valuable lesson on mental toughness and keeping a positive attitude.”

The Chargers were anticipating playing Davison for the regional crown Thursday night. It was a similar message from Macomb Dakota coach Phil McCune, whose Cougars were salted to face Utica Eisenhower in another D1 regional final Thursday.

“Holding tight right now,” McCune said. “Hope to have the opportunity to play our regional championship game, but for now, it’s all about being smart and doing what we are told.” 

The Detroit Renaissance girls were in a ‘stand-by’ mode, too.

“Took today off. Film and practice,” Phoenix coach Shane Lawal responded Thursday. “Catch up on study hall.”

For some, the outlook was more somber, and they chose to lower expectations.

“Held a meeting to inform our players that it looks like their season is most likely over,” Marine City Cardinal Mooney boys basketball coach Mike McAndrews responded Thursday night. “Emotional meeting for all of us, especially our nine seniors.” 

Same for the Bridgeport coaching staff.

“At Bridgeport, they wouldn’t let us practice, but my players went to a gym and worked out,” Bearcats boys basketball coach Kevin Marshall responded via Twitter. “Myself, I been struggling with this decision but I do understand why they did what they did. But I’m struggling right now. When you put your heart and soul in to this and it gets taken …”

The same sort of dual emotions were warring in the hearts and heads of the Detroit Edison girls basketball team, as they gathered to celebrate one of their own, senior Gabby Elliott, winning Miss Basketball.

“It’s a great honor, but it’s my senior year, and I do want to finish out the season. To know that it might possibly not happen, it’s crazy. It’s kind of heart-breaking,” Elliott admitted.

Coach Monique Brown wanted to schedule a practice, but held off until official word came down about whether or not they could — and it did within an hour of the end of Elliott’s ceremony.

Still, it gladdened her heart to see her kids smile, when they realized they weren’t being called into the school’s media center to be told of the end of their season. 

“We kinda knew about this a couple of days ago. I always knew this, the girls didn’t know, so before we came in here, they thought we were having a meeting about the season being canceled. So for them, to see them smile today when I told them Gabby won Miss Basketball, that just made me feel better,” Brown said at the ceremony.

“Today, to see her get that award, it just relieves us, because we still made some history.”

Not the kind they wanted, though.

The Pioneers were positioned to become the first girls basketball program in Michigan to win four straight state titles since Flint Northern (1978-81). 

“Wow. It’s crazy, because we were getting geared up to go play the regional championship yesterday. We were sitting 22-0, with a chance to win our fourth championship, and to get the news we won’t be able to play? We were good with no fans, as long as we were playing,” Brown said. “To get that (news), it was a very sad day for us.”

Another Miss Basketball finalist was just as devastated. 

“With the days going by, it hasn’t gotten easier,” tweeted Hartland senior Whitney Sollom. “I miss being around my team 24/7, I’m praying to God we will get the opportunity to go back on the court and win it all.” 

————

What now, though?

Do players keep themselves in shape at home, in the hopes that they can still play out their final few games/competitions? 

They can’t practice or train at school with their teammates. They can’t go to gyms, which were among the things closed down by order of Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer on Monday. 

They can’t start their AAU season, either, as many programs — which were set to hold tryouts or began holding them earlier in the month — have put them on hiatus, and a great many showcase events across the country have been either canceled or postponed. 

“Spreading COVID-19 from a basketball practice to the public, from a player to their grandma, from a healthy individual to someone with a compromised immune system, is irresponsible to say the least,” coach John Weyer, who coaches the Clarkston girls basketball team, but also runs the PR1DE AAU program, tweeted out on Sunday. “I can only imagine the spread (of COVID-19) after this weekend, as clubs continue to bring people within close contact. PR1DE will continue to adhere to the CDC guidelines. Our players’ health is our first priority.” 

One former Miss Basketball, Crystal Falls Forest Park and Michigan State grad Lexi Gussert, came up with a plan to try to help, at least for hoopsters who find themselves with time on their hands. 

“What I would be willing to do is upload (two) videos a week of individual drills that kids can do outside (would require an outside hoop, and a ball) so they can keep developing their game, stay active, and have fun. In addition, each Friday, I would upload a video which would require them to pull out a notebook and learn important intangibles as well … such as being a leader, being a good teammate, communication, etc.,” Gussert tweeted out, noting that it’s still cold out in the Upper Peninsula. “But I will say this is where it all began for me … no matter thee weather, there were ways to get outside and work on my game in the driveway.” 

There’s a bit of motivation in that sliver of hope, too. 

Nobody’s going to sit at home feeling sorry for themselves if there MIGHT be a chance they can still compete.

Or, as the Troy High athletics Twitter account put it:

“Not sure who needs to see this, but you get (three) weeks now to outwork every kid in the state while they use it as a ‘break.’ Be proactive at home but doing visualization drills, yoga, stretching or dry runs of your activity. Have that ‘So what, now what’ mentality.” 

———

But still, now what?

What does happen if — in the event of a miracle and a quicker-than-expected flattening of the curve of COVID-19’s spread — the MHSAA is able to resume sports before the end of this calendar year?

Would it be the resumption of winter sports postseason and then spring sports? Or just spring sports.

That probably depends on the timeframe when a resumption occurs.

Here’s a bit of ‘What if’ thinking, though — just spitballing what it would take to get things back on line to finish off the winter postseasons.

Hockey is easier — there are nine games left to play (two semifinals in each of the three divisions, and the three finals). I obviously don’t know the availability of USA Hockey Arena out into the future, but that’s a total that you can get done in three days, once the MHSAA resumed play, should it happen.

Gymnastics and boys swimming are the only other sports that are still going, and those would require one day at a venue to conclude.

The hard ones are boys and girls basketball.

Girls basketball still has 60 games (and 32 teams) left — that’s 32 regional finals games, 16 quarterfinal games, eight semifinals and four finals — but if you subdivide that into rounds, it’s four rounds. Theoretically, you could pack that into as few as four days, possibly five, if you put a travel day prior to the semifinals, and if you play it at host sites.

If you wanted to do it at one site, it would be spread out longer — and would require more interchange of fans.  

For boys, it’s even more difficult, because there are 256 teams remaining, and there are 252 games left to play — 128 district finals, 64 regional semifinals, 32 regional finals, 16 quarterfinals, eight semifinals and four finals. The good news is that there are only two extra dates needed, as it requires only two more rounds than the girls.

The problem becomes if you try to play them simultaneously, and you need the same gymnasiums. You could do doubleheaders, if the same site is being used, but again, that’s more crossover of crowds. (If you’re doing this as a spectator-less project, obviously, that point becomes moot.)

You could finish the boys in a week, if you packed it in. You could save a day by playing both regional games on one day, if need be (Indiana does this with the regional tournaments, with semifinals and finals both on a Saturday). If you add in two travel days, it would be nine. 

The biggest hurdle, of course, is the lead time to get a team ready, physically, to play.

Even if you assume you could do that in 10 days, you’re looking at a 19-day window to get in the winter tournaments. (Another big hurdle is the dearth of referees, which would be made worse by a packed-in schedule.)

If you use the April 6 starting point — the last one announced by the MHSAA, you’re looking at April 24 at the earliest end point of ALL spring sports.

The latest CDC guidelines, issued Sunday, were to be no more gatherings of 250-plus people for at least eight weeks. That would put us at a mid-May start point, and the end of the ‘winter’ season around the first week of June. 

It’s not that uncommon for spring sports in Michigan — what with the cold and rain and mud — to not really get underway until April anyway, so from a competition standpoint, that start would mean a condensed season. However, the preparation is something that would be lacking. It’s going to take you more than 10 days of throwing to get a pitcher ready for competition, for example. If you’re looking at a mid-May re-start for schools, there might not be much of a spring season. 

While there’s been no final determination yet made for either a continuation of winter sports or the start of spring, you’d have to think the decision-makers at the MHSAA have a deadline in mind — a ‘point of no return,’ so to speak — after which holding one or the other — or both — becomes no longer feasible. 

Presumably, we have not yet reached that date. 

Sometime down the road, we will either get to a date when the restrictions can be rolled back, or we’ll get to the date that forces the ‘pause’ to become a ‘full stop.’ 

Until then, we can just keep the hope alive, keep spirits up, and be good to one another.