Editor’s Note: Matt Troha, Illinois High School Association assistant executive director and a member of the High School Today Publications Committee, provides a behind-the-scenes look at how the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded in Illinois in conjunction with the IHSA’s state basketball tournaments.
Illinois is the home to America’s Original March Madness, but the four-week stretch of Illinois High School Association (IHSA) state basketball from late February to mid-March is pure madness for the IHSA staff and for me personally. As the association’s information director, there are four weekends of tipoffs, tweets and time-out coordination.
So on March 7, once the broadcasts were off the air, the media interviews were complete, social media was updated and William Fremd High School had exited the arena with its IHSA Class 4A Girls Basketball state championship trophy, we were at the midway point of another basketball state final season.
It was time to turn our attention to the boys state tournaments.
One place my attention was not at that point was on current events. Having been in my own little basketball foxhole, I had failed to realize the scope of what was happening with COVID-19. Fellow IHSA administrator Stacey Lambert had convened discussions about the Coronavirus with the IHSA Sports Medicine Advisory Committee beginning in late February, which led us to push out best practices to our member schools. So, while there some recognition on my part, I had no idea how much life would change over the course of the next week.
Monday, March 9
The IHSA Class 1A and 2A (smaller of our four classes) Boys Basketball fields are down to eight teams in each class. The Super- Sectional rounds to determine the eight teams (four per class) advancing to the state finals in Peoria will be played on Tuesday night, making Monday a day of catchup and preparation. Additionally, the Class 3A/4A Sectionals will unfold Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday of this week. Internally, our antenna is up, as connections with both state health officials and the Peoria City/County Health Department begin in earnest.
Loyola Academy (Wilmette, Illinois) cancels its classes on Monday after learning that a student had been in contact with someone with COVID-19. Having won a regional title a few nights earlier, questions began to swirl about whether the school would/should play in the sectional on Tuesday. The realization that this is likely to be a week unlike any other in my 12 years at the IHSA begins to set in.
Tuesday, March 10
Most of our staff takes a rented moving van to Peoria to drop off various supplies for the state tournament, as well as basketballs and tchotchkes that supplement the March Madness Experience fanfest we host in the adjacent exhibit halls in the arena.
Meanwhile, with no recommended restrictions in place from any state or local health departments, we alert all of our host sites and participating schools that the various state tournament games will proceed as scheduled.
On Tuesday night, eight Class 1A/2A teams punch their tickets to state throughout the Land of Lincoln. Nearly 4,000 fans make the 30-mile trip to pack Illinois State University’s Redbird Arena to cheer on Roanoke-Benson High School, as the Rockets get the game-winning bucket with 7.4 seconds remaining to clinch their first-ever state final berth.
Wednesday, March 11
Wednesday of state tournament week is always a grind in our office, and even more so in the wake of the growing Coronavirus concerns. My duties start with statewide media conference calls for the eight state qualifying coaches and end with getting the program proofed and ready to print. Afterhours are spent with more preparation for the weekend.
During the day, the eight state qualifiers are alerted that we are all systems go, including their team shootarounds in Peoria on Thursday afternoon, but that changes could be forthcoming in what is a very fluid sports landscape.
A school hosting a sectional is forced to postpone its game when it discovers a few hours before game time that a student who was recently traveling abroad is sick and is awaiting COVID-19 test results.
That news made the ground feel uneven heading into Wednesday evening, and then it shifted to downright shaky after the Oklahoma Thunder and Utah Jazz players leave the floor of their postponed game and word soon follows that the NBA is on hiatus. Information is flowing fast and furiously on social media, while an email chain of fellow information directors from state associations around the country is seemingly pinging my inbox every few minutes with updates.
I join our Executive Director Craig Anderson and Associate Executive Director Kurt Gibson on a call, where we discuss the possibility of following the growing trend of limiting fan attendance at all remaining IHSA basketball games. Shortly thereafter, health officials sign off on a plan to allow 60 fans per team, and the IHSA Board of Directors affirms that plan. Gibson alerts the state qualifying teams sometime past 10 p.m., and we decide to hold off on releasing information to the public to give our schools more time to determine ticket distribution.
With the decision made on fan limitations, and the subsequent press release complete, I was in a state of occupational paralysis. A pile of incomplete state basketball work sits directly in front of me, while a nagging feeling tells me to push it aside and begin working on a press release announcing the cancellation of the tournament. I peck at both tasks while being captivated by the constant breaking COVID news on TV and social media, ultimately calling it a day with neither job completed, instead choosing sleep with a sense that Thursday is going to be another long day.
Thursday, March 12
I was up early to release the news on the crowd limitations, which comes as a shock to no one at this juncture, and headed to the office for final preparations before packing and heading to Peoria for state final shootarounds.
We still have the green light from the appropriate state and local medical experts to play with limited crowds, and plan to do so. We receive another bit of good news, as the student at the sectional host school from the previous night has tested negative for COVID-19, and the school will be able to host the postponed game later on Thursday night.
We hold a 1:30 p.m. press conference in Peoria, as local leaders, tournament personnel and our executive director retrace the steps of the week and provide more details on plans for the weekend. We follow that with a media conference call to reiterate the same for those individuals who aren’t in Peoria.
About 4 p.m., I slip into the empty media room in the arena to gather my thoughts. ESPN is on the TV, and Rece Davis alerts Gonzaga University men’s basketball coach Mark Few that the NCAA has canceled its Men’s & Women’s Basketball Tournaments. Our internal staff and Board text chains light up with the news almost instantaneously. It feels like a gamechanger to everyone, and it becomes clear that we won’t be playing basketball tonight, or any time soon.
Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker announces he is still limiting public gatherings, but has not issued a shelter-in-place order. However, our Board agrees that with the NCAA’s announcement, and the ripples it is already creating, we had no other option except to cancel the tournaments. The risk of spreading the virus to attendees is simply too great, and it would be irresponsible for us to gather people from around the state in Peoria, which has limited COVID-19 cases at this juncture. Our Board debates cancellation vs. postponement, but ultimately sees the writing on the wall, realizing that May is likely the earliest a return may happen, if at all.
The call ends at 5:58 p.m., and our staff rushed to their 6 p.m. state final coaches and administrators meeting. Instead of providing an overview of the events and expectations of the weekend to the coaches and school personnel, they are charged with delivering the sobering news that the state tournament is canceled.
With the news having already spread like wildfire via social media, the teams were aware of what was coming. I methodically put the finishing touches on the disheartening press release announcing that high school basketball season is over in Illinois. Indecision and uncertainty have lingered throughout the week, so it’s somewhat comforting to have an answer – even if it is a painful one.
One team is still milling around the arena lobby as I exit, and it hurts me to see tears in eyes of players as they simultaneously try to make sense of what just happened, and extend their state finals experience for just a few moments.
As I walk to my car, I thought of a question I have heard many times in post-game press conferences throughout the years.
Which is the worse way to lose?
Getting blown out, where the fate is inevitable, and it simply creeps closer with each passing second, or believing you are going to win throughout the game, only to have your heart ripped out on a buzzer-beater?
I now know the answer and it’s neither. The worst fate is never getting the chance at all.