A difficult day

Warriors warm up, then are told game is off

Morning Journal photo / Chris Rambo Fans of the West Branch girls basketball team, already limited in numbers, watch as the Warriors and Dayton Carroll prepare for their Division II state semifinal. The game never was played as the OHSAA postponed the remaining tournament games in the state.

COLUMBUS — It was a long day for the West Branch girls basketball team Thursday. None of it involved playing basketball.

The Warriors were less than 16 minutes from the scheduled 1 p.m. tip-off for their Division II state semifinal when the OHSAA announced it was postponing the remaining tournament games due to the coronavirus pandemic.

On the way home, the Warriors stopped to eat and the chartered bus broke down in a parking lot in Bellville. The team members had to wait around 75 minutes for another bus and arrived home after dark.

“It’s been a long day with some disappointments, tough decisions and tough emotions,” West Branch coach Walt DeShields said. “The hardest thing is to tell your team they can’t play.”

Despite a limited crowd, the West Branch girls basketball team took the floor for Thursday’s state semifinal against Dayton Carroll, excited and eager to compete for a spot in the state title game.

Sadly, they never got the chance. Minutes before tip-off, the floor at Ohio State University’s St. John Arena was cleared. A few minutes later, Ohio High School Athletic Association Executive Director Jerry Snodgrass announced in a press conference that all remaining OHSAA winter tournaments have been postponed indefinitely due to the growing nationwide concern over the COVID-19 coronavirus.

The decision impacts all girls basketball state tournament games, all boys basketball regional and state tournament games, as well as the state wrestling and hockey tournaments.

“This is certainly one of the toughest days of not only my career, but also my staff’s career,” Snodgrass said. “I know how much work and emotion these kids put in to get here and I have sincere empathy for them. This decision was made for no other reason other than what is best for their health.”

Coming into the game, the crowd was already going to be limited to a couple hundred family members after the OHSAA announced on Tuesday that there would be spectator restrictions in place for the state basketball and wrestling tournaments.

With under an hour to go before tip-off, it appeared to be business as usual as both teams took the floor for their normal pregame routine.

However, as the Warriors exited the locker room for their final stretch of warmups, DeShields was pulled aside by an OHSAA official and into a room with the OHSAA director.

“At first, I thought it was just to talk to one of the TV stations for a minute or two,” DeShields said. “But when I saw Jerry Snodgrass there, I knew this was it. They were pulling the plug.”

An emotional DeShields then had to go into the locker room, where the players had gathered, and deliver one of the toughest speeches of his life.

“There are really no words to describe it, I’ve never dealt with anything close to this in my career,” DeShields said. “It was a very, very tough emotional scene. The kids were heartbroken.”

The decision, made with both teams ready to play and fans already in place, left everyone in shock.

“It just takes the wind out of you,” DeShields said. “The girls worked so hard and were so excited to play. It feels like your heart just got ripped out.”

Snodgrass began his day on a conference call with several other executive directors of high school sports organizations in other states and the plan at the time was still to move forward as scheduled.

However, things developed rapidly after that.

Major League Baseball and the NHL each announced they were suspending activity Thursday, while the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, SEC and several other conferences all canceled their college basketball tournaments. That was in addition to the NBA suspending its season Wednesday night after Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for Coronavirus.

“MLB and NBA are canceling and we’re part of it,” DeShields said. “It’s so hard because of all the work you’ve put in to get there.”

Snodgrass said the final decision was arrived at sometime in the final hour before Thursday’s scheduled tip-off and was made after an overall assessment of the current situation.

“This decision may appear last-minute, but things have changed so fast in just the last eight hours,” Snodgrass said. “We’re taking our advice from the CDC and the Ohio Department of Health. At this moment, everything points to the chances for the virus spreading being tremendously increased through any kind of mass gathering and we had many of those scheduled across the state. In just wrestling alone we have 630 competitors.

“As tough as it is, this is the wisest course of action to take right now. Students and fans potentially spreading the virus is our greatest concern and that can happen when you have even limited amounts of people in close proximity.”

DeShields said he didn’t have an inkling that the game might be called until the announcement was made.

“You see what happened last night with the NBA and it makes you think a little, but when we got to the arena it seemed like it was going to be business as usual,” DeShields said. “The kids were ready to play.”

Snodgrass did not completely close the door on the games being rescheduled, but said that concluding this season’s winter sports without crowning any basketball, wrestling or hockey champions was a very real possibility.

“I don’t want to go too far down that road, but it’s definitely on the table,” Snodgrass said.

“I don’t see any indication of (the games being played at a later date),” DeShields said. “With school being canceled, you’re not going to be able to practice. The players won’t be in shape. I don’t think it will be fair to anyone.”

With many schools gearing up for canceling classes, Snodgrass said contingency plans are already being made for spring sports, which are scheduled to begin in two weeks.

“So much of what we’re dealing with is unknown,” he said. “We don’t know if schools are going to be closed or for how long, it’s very much a moving target right now. I don’t know what the end result is going to be.”

After hearing the news, the Warriors filed out of the arena and traveled back to the hotel to gather their belongings before heading back home. It was announced Thursday afternoon that classes at West Branch for today had been canceled.

DeShields said he spoke to his team about trying to keep Thursday’s news in perspective.

“There is a lot going on in this country and in the world right now, people are dying from this disease,” DeShields said. “Although we are very disappointed, keeping people healthy and safe should be everyone’s top priority right now. That’s more important than a basketball game.”

DeShields also spoke about using Thursday’s searing disappointment as a teachable moment.

“As you go through life, everything is not always going to go your way,” DeShields said. “You’re going to encounter obstacles and how you face them is important. We always hope to give the players the necessary tools to grow into strong adults, this is an experience that they can draw from.”

Whether or not this year’s West Branch team ever steps on the court again, DeShields said the Warriors have already secured a place in school history.

“We thought we had something special when this group came in as freshmen,” DeShields said. “They’ve grown into a tough, smart gritty team that refused to accept defeat. They are going to be remembered at West Branch forever regardless of what happens.”

The Warriors, ranked seventh in the final Division II state poll, finished with a 24-3 record.

“It is a team that got a lot better as the season went along,” DeShields said. “We were playing our best basketball right now. That’s the disappointing thing about it. We thought we had a chance to win the tournament.

“You could see every game our confidence grow. It just kind of rips your heart out, especially for the seniors, who won’t get a chance to play in the uniform again.”