Oneida High School head coach Jacob King said looking into the faces of his team’s four seniors on Friday morning was one of the hardest things he’s done as a coach.
“It was just heartbreaking to look into the faces of my seniors,” he said.
Those athletes — post players Dalton Yancey, Elijah West, Jordan Perry and Andrew Dewitt — were supposed to enjoy the crowning moment of their high school basketball careers next week, when they and their team headed to Murfreesboro for the Class A boys tournament at Middle Tennessee State University.
Instead, they had the rug jerked out from under them on Thursday evening, when TSSAA announced that the tournament was being suspended due to coronavirus concerns.
Those are four seniors who won just eight games in their freshmen season. Then they set about the task of bringing the Oneida program back, one step at a time. As sophomores, they won 14 games but failed to advance to the regionals. As juniors, they surpassed 20 wins and advanced to the state sectional for the first time in seven years. And, as seniors, they won a second consecutive region championship for the first time in school history and earned their school’s first state tournament appearance in 22 years.
They had been close as juniors, losing to Cosby on their home floor by four points after winning the school’s first region championship in 17 years. And immediately after that sectional game ended in March 2019, they set about the task of making sure they wouldn’t come up short this year. King hung a picture of Murphy Center — the facility that has hosted the state tournament for a generation and that is adoringly referred to by high school basketball fans as the Glass House — in the locker room so that his players wouldn’t forget their goal. He reminded them of it every day when they were conditioning, long before basketball season actually arrived. He said he’d never had a team that showed up — sometimes voluntarily — to work in the weight room with the eagerness that this year’s team showed. They had one goal: getting to “The ‘Boro.”
There were obstacles along the way. West tore his ACL during summer camp, only to stun his doctors and others with his quick rehabilitation and return to action. Yancey broke his wrist in early December, only to likewise bounce back ahead of schedule. There were other setbacks as well, but that group of seniors and their teammates never took their eyes off the path to Murfreesboro. One by one, once the postseason began, King erased marks off a dry-erase board in the team’s locker room. Each mark represented a game the Indians had to win to get to the Glass House. Finally, on March 9, King was able to erase the last mark. His team had defeated University High to earn the right to play at the Murphy Center.
That was before the World Health Organization officially declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic on Wednesday. When that happened, dominoes began to fall. Quickly. And each one pushed TSSAA closer to the decision that was finally announced Thursday night.
First, the NCAA announced its basketball tournament would be played without fans in attendance. Then the SEC followed suit for its conference tournament. Then MTSU, the host school, announced that it was suspending classes. By Thursday morning, the SEC had announced it was canceling its conference tournament. The NCAA would later do the same. Kentucky announced that it was following several other states in canceling its high school basketball tournaments.
TSSAA had begun the day by announcing that, after Thursday’s quarterfinal games in the girls’ tournament, the remaining games would be played without fans in attendance. But there was a feeling in the air at Murphy Center that those plans would change. And following the conclusion of the day’s last game between Gibson County and Pickett County, they did. TSSAA followed the precedent established by virtually everyone else, announcing that the remainder of the girls tournament and the boys tournament would be suspended.
Suspended. Not canceled. The announcement left a glimmer of hope. But most of the coaches whose teams were still playing confided that they didn’t expect the tournaments to be completed. For its part, TSSAA said it started the day with every intention of completing the tournaments, but the decisions by the NCAA and other states’ high school sanctioning bodies had created an inevitability — one in which canceling Tennessee’s high school basketball tournaments was the only responsible thing to do.
Hearing the dejection in King’s voice was hard. Not nearly as hard as it must’ve been for King to face his seniors and deliver them the news, but hard. No one was more excited for Oneida to get back to Murfreesboro than King, who works as a non-faculty coach and has poured his heart and soul into his work to take the Oneida program to the top. It was hard to know that a coaching staff and a group of players so jubilant after earning the right to play in Murfreesboro on Monday night were having that opportunity ripped away just 72 hours later. And, perhaps, it was made harder by the knowledge that Oneida matched up well with any of the other seven teams in Murfreesboro — that the Indians would have had an opportunity to compete with anybody. Just getting to Murfreesboro and earning the right to step onto that floor is an achievement that high school basketball players remember for the rest of their lives. But the rest of the story is actually having an opportunity to win games and see how you stack up against the best teams in the state once you get there … and, for one lucky team, bringing home the golden trophy.
As a sportswriter who has followed Oneida not just through this season but through these seniors’ and coaches’ last four seasons, Thursday night was a tough night. It was a tough night for everyone who wanted to see Oneida get to play out the opportunity it had accomplished. And for as much as it hurt in Oneida that the tournaments were suspended, there are a lot of other communities that are hurting right now, too. Just ask them how they’re feeling up in Hampton, or in Cross Plains, or in Celina, or in Loretto. All of them teams that would have been competing in the same bracket as Oneida, representing small towns from one end of Tennessee to the other, who wear their pride for their community’s high school on their sleeves.
And that’s just the Class A boys bracket. There were eight other teams in Class AA, and eight more in Class AAA, who were awaiting their big moment in the spotlight. That’s to say nothing of the 16 teams that remained in the girls tournament’s final four across three brackets, including the Loretto team that defeated Oneida’s Lady Indians on Thursday, and the Clarkrange team from neighboring Fentress County that looked almost invincible in defeating Huntingdon in the quarterfinals.
There are a lot of shattered hearts in Tennessse’s high school basketball world today. Perhaps no player said it better than Loretto’s Karly Weathers, a Miss Basketball finalist who scored a game-high 16 in the win over Oneida to help her team earn an opportunity to face Gibson County in a rematch of last year’s championship game.
“My heart breaks for every student-athlete in the state who has worked their tails off to get to the same place that we were,” Weathers said Friday. “I know that my team has gotten up very early before school and stayed late in the afternoons on the same day. We have been playing together since my second grade year and to see my seniors in pain over this, it breaks me. I know that basketball is something you do, but it’s not who you are. The thing is, it may not be who you are, but it molds you into the person you will be.”
At first, I couldn’t find it within me to criticize TSSAA for its decision. In fact, I felt it was the only decision that could’ve been made, for the very reasons TSSAA stated when it made the decision.
I still can’t find it in me to criticize TSSAA, but I no longer feel like it was the correct decision. And even if it means going out on a limb by itself, even if it means playing the part of a renegade who bucks a trend set by its counterparts in other states, TSSAA owes it to these players, these coaches and these communities to let the kids play this thing out.
Coronavirus is a real threat. There’s no denying that. Our newspaper has been covering the virus with as much effort as we can afford, and we’ve realized that the U.S. cannot allow this disease to get out of control like it did in Italy. If it does, there will be Americans who die unnecessarily.
But in our rush to implement stringent measures to control the disease, we shouldn’t lose our senses. At some point in the uncertain days and weeks ahead, our sensibility may be the only thing we’ve left to hold onto. The question that deserves to be carefully examined is whether placing these kids and their coaches in a gymnasium to play a basketball game is going to heighten anyone’s risk of contracting coronavirus — even if the NCAA has determined that playing games is not in the best interest of its member institutions and the NBA has determined that it isn’t in the best interest of its franchises.
TSSAA’s initial decision to play the tournaments’ remaining games without fans seemed reasonable. It was unfortunate, as players would have been robbed the true atmosphere that makes the state tournament so special. But stopping large crowds of people from assembling together is truly one of the best ways we’re going to slow the inevitable spread of the coronavirus.
By taking the next step, there are a lot of things that simply don’t make sense. Across the Volunteer State on Friday, there were high school baseball teams, softball teams, and soccer teams in action. In some instances, athletes who had been scheduled to play in the state basketball championships were instead playing baseball or softball. TSSAA issued a statement earlier in the day saying it was leaving regular season games to the discretion of each individual member school.
So we can play nine-on-nine on the diamond, or 11-on-11 on the pitch, but we can’t play five-on-five on the hardwood? I’m sorry, but that doesn’t make sense. And you’ll have to forgive the senior basketball players if they’re looking at their classmates enjoying their final seasons in the spring sports and struggling to make sense of it as well.
Also on Friday, most of the athletes who would’ve been participating in the state tournaments were in class, and they’re scheduled to be there next week, as well. Some Tennessee school districts have canceled classes, but many have not, with the state’s Department of Education advising against closing schools unless there’s an actual case of coronavirus present within the school.
Obviously the TSSAA and the Department of Education and school boards across the state are all completely separate entities, each having no control over the decisions of the others, but if these students can go to school with hundreds or even thousands of their fellow students on a given day, and sit in classrooms with dozens of their peers, are we really putting them, their families or their communities at an increased risk by letting them and up to 23 of their teammates, coaches and support staff go into an almost-empty gym and play a basketball game?
The venue isn’t an issue; MTSU has already announced that it would allow the tournaments to play out at Murphy Center even though it has suspended classes. Even if the venue is a question, there are almost unlimited gymnasiums in the Nashville-Murfreesboro metroplex.
Willingness isn’t an issue; these players and coaches are chomping at the bit to play, and even several of the officials who were assigned to the games expressed disappointment that they were being canceled. Announce that the games will be played, and don’t penalize any team that wishes to forfeit, don’t allow member schools to penalize any player who wishes not to play, and don’t penalize any referee who wishes to withdraw.
Clearly, coronavirus is a risk. Our nation is dealing with that, and will continue to deal with that. But as long as their mothers and fathers are still heading off to crowded job sites every day, as long as their classmates are still congregating on the pitch and the diamond to compete every day, and as long as they’re sitting in classrooms to prepare themselves for end-of-course testing every day, there’s only one right way to conclude this:
Let these kids play.