Saturday, March 14, 2020

The MIAA State Championship Weekend That Wasn't

Many teams are left wondering whether they could have had the same experience Maynard did back in 2017 (Photo Courtesy: Joe Parello/@HereWeGoJoe)
By Matt Feld (@Mattyfeld612)

For hundreds of high school athletes across the state, this upcoming weekend was supposed to be one to remember. Instead, Thursday night turned into one to forget.

On Thursday afternoon, the MIAA Board of Directors unanimously voted to cancel the MIAA Boys and Girls basketball and hockey state championships that were slated to be played over the course of Saturday and Sunday in an effort to help combat the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic here in Massachusetts. As a result, the remaining teams in both sports were declared 'co-champions.'

The unprecedented nature of such a decision because of unthinkable circumstances led to dismay, anger, and understandable frustration from athletes across the state who were preparing for one last game. Athletes who had been preparing for days, weeks, months, and years to have the chance to bring a championship back to their communities were left wondering what could have been.

On Thursday night, a video circulated on twitter of Arlington hockey coach Anthony Messuri notifying his team that they would not receive the chance to compete against Pope Francis for the Division 1A Super Eight title. It was heartbreaking, depressing, and surreal. The shock felt radiated through the screen. Student-athletes on the brink of making school history will never be afforded the chance to have their moment.

Messuri's son, Anthony, took to twitter to try and explain his emotions in light of such a lost opportunity.

"I am truly heartbroken knowing I will never have the the satisfaction of my final high school hockey game," Messuri said. "(High school) hockey was to me what college hockey or the NHL is to many other young boys or girls playing the sport."

Those across the high school basketball community expressed similar displeasure. Lynn English was set to take on Springfield Central in the Div. 1 Boys Basketball State Final in hopes of proving for the second straight season they are without question the top team in the Bay State.

"Let us play just one more game please, we gotta finish," Bulldogs' star point guard Jarnel Guzman wrote on twitter. "This is what both teams have worked for all year. We can't go out like that. There can only be one winner."

There are track athletes who qualified for nationals that are not able to compete, and a state cheerleading competition scheduled for Sunday that will not take place.

Throughout the state there are people who know about high school sports far more than me. They know the history, have seen hundreds of more games, and have built stronger relationships with coaches and administrators. They will forget more with regards to the ins-and-outs of this business than I will ever learn.

But I can confidently say that this is a situation that no one has ever experienced. There's no guide for this, no playbook, or no rule book to read from that helps alleviate the sentiment that overwhelmed athletes and coaches in recent days. Nothing can be done to make sure the games are played this weekend. Nothing to do to make the participating programs feel better.

The only consolation in the absence of championship games themselves is that they allow a better appreciation for what they symbolize.  For everyone involved its devastating. The chance to compete for one final time, in an effort to bring home a trophy, only comes around for so many once in a career.

Its even more crushing for those who this weekend was supposed to be climax of their athletic careers. This is no disrespect for the Division 1 scholarship players, or those who have already found a home for collegiate athletics. They have worked equally hard, pouring in unthinkable hours of time and dispensing countless amounts of energy to reach this point. But those players will have a second career. Due to their ability - on top of their effort - those boys and girls will have a chance to compete for something greater whether it be a collegiate conference title or a national championship.

For everyone else, however, this was their last dance. Their final chance to etch their name in program lore. Whenever a writer like myself is assigned a game or a human interest story its exciting. Knowing you have the chance to shed light on a particular player's experience or a program's recent excellence is exhilarating and something I will never take for granted.

Its even more rewarding, however, when you receive that opportunity to cover a player from a program that does not often get statewide recognition. There is a thrill, adrenaline rush, in talking to that coach who is unable to contain him or herself through their answers because they feel as though their program is finally receiving the attention and respect they have worked so hard to achieve.  Its in those moments, through those stories, that I discover why I enjoy doing what I've had the chance to do for the past six years now. Cover high school sports.

This weekend was intended to create more of those stores, more of those moments. Unfortunately, they will never come. Multiple schools were going for their first championship in hockey and more in basketball. They will be labeled as "co-champions" and rightly celebrated and honored for their season, but that feeling of elation once the final buzzer sounds is lost for the time being.

On Thursday night I had the chance to cover the final two games of the winter season. They were originally dubbed state semi-final games set to be played without fans in hopes of quelling the spread of the virus. It seemed like the proper, reasonable course of action. Perhaps the games this weekend would follow similar protocol giving kids the chance to compete for a state championship while narrowing down the risks for all involved.

Except then it was announced late Wednesday night that Utah Jazz star Rudy Gobert had tested positive for Coronavirus leading to the postponement of the NBA regular season, beginning a snowball of events that left only one appropriate course of action.

That left the two games Thursday night between Div. 4 Girls participants Maynard and Munson and Div. 3 Boys counterparts Sutton and Sabis as de-facto state championship games. It was eerie with such a high profile game being played in front of a seemingly desolate Worcester State University gym. Just six days earlier, in the same arena, St. John's Shrewsbury had squeaked past Franklin in front of a sold out crowd comprised of a pair of fervent fan sections. Yet the enthusiasm between the four teams competing never waned. This was their time to compete for a championship, and they were taking full advantage.

Following the conclusion of the two games, won by Maynard and Sutton, I was talking to a former high school football player who had the chance to compete for a pair of state championships during his career. He said he thought the whole situation was, "f--cking stupid" and that if he was in the shoes of players who have had the opportunity stripped from them, he would show the same sort of frustration and anger on social media.

Its easy to strike back at such a reaction and deem it as ill-informed or irrational. But once you take a step back, you realize that for most of these players its more than just cancelling a sports game. Whether a freshman who may never get back again or a senior who has been waiting for their moment to be the leader of a title team, this is their passion. Its been a catalyst for motivation. A sense of purpose. All the effort seems to have led to no reward.

The actions are necessary, but that does not alleviate the frustration. The feelings displayed over the last 48 hours were supposed to be used towards success on the court and rink these two days. They were supposed to be used to fill columns of newspapers and windows of text.

Hopefully one day in the near future, people will look back on these measures and think to themselves that they were all an overreaction. That's when we'll know they were a success.

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