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Home Sports Notebook: Looking back on the dawn of the covid era, as sports...

Notebook: Looking back on the dawn of the covid era, as sports collapsed

One year ago this week, as Tim Smith, Mark Matthews, John L. Strunk and myself drove to Murfreesboro for the state basketball tournament, we speculated about whether the tournament would be completed. TSSAA had already announced that spectators would not be permitted to attend after the first day of action at the Murphy Center on the campus of Middle Tennessee State University, and there was new information coming down every hour as the sports world underwent a rapid metamorphosis in light of the spread of coronavirus.

By the time we got to Murfreesboro, the SEC basketball tournament in Nashville had been canceled, which further put the high school tournament on notice. Inside the Glass House, TSSAA folks spoke in hushed tones in the corridor and court-side. it seemed that a decision was coming, and it seemed that it wouldn’t be a positive one.

Hours later, we sat inside an O’Charleys restaurant in Cookeville, where we had stopped for dinner on the way home. Oneida’s girls had been defeated by Loretto; their season was complete. But the Oneida boys were scheduled to make a trip to Murfreesboro the following week. The Indians were playing as good as anyone in the state, and had gotten a good draw. We were all of the opinion that Oneida would ultimately have an opportunity to at least get to the state tournament game on the third day of play. The Indians’ lack of depth might ultimately do them in, but they had a real chance to make some noise on Tennessee high school basketball’s biggest stage.

Then Smith — ever the realist — grimly reminded us that the boys tournament might not be played … probably wouldn’t be played, in fact.

Back home, even as the Lady Indians were taking on Loretto and Ms. Basketball winner Karlie Weathers that afternoon in Murfreesboro, Derek Keeton and his Oneida soccer team were preparing for what looked like it could be the program’s first-ever state tournament berth. With junior Danner Keeton back from a knee injury that had cost him the previous season, and a strong senior class, Oneida had all the pieces in place to make a deep postseason run.

And Oneida’s baseball team was also practicing. Nobody was predicting it that second week of March, but the Indians were on a verge of a resurgent start to the new season under first-year head coach Chad McDowell. Ace pitcher Jakob Hamilton, a senior, was primed for the kind of final season that would put him on the radar of college scouts.

At Scott High, Lesie Gansore had broken several school track and field records as a sophomore, and was ready for her junior campaign. Like their peers up the road at Oneida, the Highlanders’ baseball, softball and soccer teams were preparing to kick off their spring season after months of waiting.

We hadn’t much more than left O’Charleys and gotten back on Interstate 40 towards home that Thursday evening than word came down from TSSAA: the remainder of the girls’ state tournament was being suspended. The next week’s boys’ tournament was on hold as well.

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There had been 18 cases of coronavirus reported in Tennessee as of that evening.

Three weeks later, Derek Keeton was out late on a Thursday evening, repainting the lines at Oneida’s Jane Terry Hoffman Field — just to keep them there, before they faded from sight. Games had been suspended; the team wasn’t even allowed to practice. But Keeton was holding on to some last sense of normalcy — however fading it might be.

“I have to hold on to that small glimmer of hope,” he said at the time. “I have to hold that hope for the boys.”

Of course, as we know, the state basketball tournaments and the spring sports seasons would go on to be canceled. Hamilton pitched a complete-game no-hitter in what would turn out to be his final high school appearance. The Indians’ soccer team never got to find out whether they had what it took to get to the Spring Fling. We never got to find out how much noise the Oneida boys could make at MTSU. And we never learned how many more school records Gansore might wind up with.

When we spoke by phone on April 3, Keeton already knew what he was unwilling to knew. Deep down, he knew it: the season wasn’t going to happen.

“I really don’t know what to tell my seniors right now, and I’m never at a loss for words,” he said. “I don’t know what to tell these kids, except to tell them that if you’re a born-again Christian, everything is to glorify the Lord and trust in Him. That’s the truth. And that’s all I can tell them.”

Then, he added: “This might be the best team that nobody got to see.”

None of the coaches we spoke to blamed TSSAA for the decisions that were made. Not Keeton, and not his counterpart at Scott High, Eric Henry. Not Jacob King, who was so disappointed he could hardly talk, calling it a “gut-punch” that his seniors’ chance to play for a state championship had been jerked out from under them.

Henry, who called the loss of the spring season “truly disappointing,” spoke of his mother, who is 80 and is in the at-risk age group. “You see a lot of kids in the inner cities being raised by their grandparents,” he said. “And you see that more and more even here in Scott County. So I can see the dangers of bringing it home and spreading it to people who are more vulnerable.”

Keeton told his team that soccer is still a game; it’s hardly a matter of life-or-death, while on the front lines of the health care field, the Covid-19 pandemic was literally life-or-death for nurses and doctors who were dealing with unknowns every single day.

“I can’t think of a better example for courage than what our kids are seeing right now,” he said. “There’s nothing I could’ve taught them on the soccer field or off it that would match what they’re seeing right now that our medical folks are dealing with.”

As Keeton and Henry spoke that Friday afternoon, Tennessee’s 18 cases of Covid-19 had ballooned to more than 2,000. The face of the pandemic was rapidly changing.

Hindsight and retrospect are powerful things. As we reach the one-year anniversary of covid’s arrival in Tennessee, it seems almost laughable that we canceled the state basketball tournaments over fewer than two dozen of covid cases in Tennessee. But this week we’ll begin the 2021 state tournaments with more than 13,000 active cases of Covid-19 in Tennessee. We were playing basketball back in December with more than 80,000 active cases of the virus in Tennessee.

No one was laughing in March 2020, however. Hindsight has a funny way of being much more revealing than foresight. There was much more we didn’t know about coronavirus than there was that we did know. Doctors weren’t sure how to treat it. And we were acting under the hope and belief — however far-flung it might have been — that we could contain the virus.

That, of course, wasn’t the case. Despite our best efforts, the virus infiltrated every community and did its dirty dance on just about every aspect of human life. We shut down life — not just sporting events and our schools, but most businesses and even sacred functions like worship services and weddings — in an effort to contain a virus that would prove to be uncontainable. Proms were canceled. In many cases, graduation ceremonies were, too. The same seniors who had their final sports competitions jerked away by the virus were also losing the crowning events of their final year of high school.

Despite our best efforts, the virus knocked.

By Christmas, there were 363 active cases of Covid-19 in Scott County alone. Deaths were mounting at an alarming rate. We did shut schools down — again — a few days before Christmas break, and canceled basketball tournaments that were scheduled to coincide with the Christmas break. But, for the most part, life went on, although there were more than 20 times the number of covid cases in Scott County alone as there were in the entire state back in March, when we first started shutting everything down.

We now know that, despite well-intended efforts, the best approach to coronavirus was to let it run its course while taking the best precautions that we could take. That meant things like masking up, socially distancing whenever possible, guarding our nursing homes like a bank vault, and working to protect the most vulnerable among us. But it also meant that, aside from those safety measures, life had to go on.

Nothing has been the same even as covid cases have dropped. We’re slowly drifting back towards normalcy, but as we reach the one-year anniversary of the start of this thing, we aren’t completely back there yet. Many churches have reduced their number of weekly services. But most churches are back to at least one service a week. Schools never allowed gyms to be completely filled with spectators for basketball games. But we were back to having basketball games. Many of us are still wearing masks when we go shopping. But we’re going shopping, and there are no stores that are closed because they aren’t deemed “essential.”

We’re a different people now than we were a year ago. There’s a lot we know about dealing with global health crises now that we didn’t know in March 2020. Many of us are far less apt to take things for granted now than we were in March 2020. And, suffice to say, just about all of us have a void in our hearts left by the loss of someone we care about whose life was cut short due to coronavirus.

Along the way, we’ve bickered and argued a lot over the best way to proceed. Last summer, when I stated on Twitter that we needed sports to resume for the sake of our kids who were having so much ripped away from them, I was hung out to dry for supposedly caring more about sports than about the safety of our children.

But several months later, I think what we have learned has vindicated my stance back then. Canceling sports did little to hinder the spread of coronavirus. Resuming sports and trying to get back to some sort of normalcy has been critical for our kids.

Hindsight doesn’t lie. It is laughable that we canceled the 2020 state basketball tournaments and spring sports season over fewer than two dozen cases of coronavirus. But that’s not a knock on TSSAA or any other decision-maker. We were dealing with unknowns, and the decisions we were making were well-intended, even if they did turn out to be misguided. It’s hard to make decisions without experience as a guide. But it’s unfortunate that we handled it the way we did. In retrospect, the proper way to have handled it would have been to have played the games — both the basketball tournaments and the outdoor spring sports — while limiting attendance in a manner that would allow everyone to spread out, requiring masks, and sanitizing the facilities and equipment before and after games.

Make no mistake: If we could’ve contained the virus or significantly altered its spread, if we could’ve saved a few hundred thousand American lives, asking our kids to give up their spring sports, their senior prom and their graduation ceremony would’ve been a small price to pay. We’ll never know exactly how many lives we saved, of course. But in small towns like ours, where the wave of covid infections didn’t hit until months after the fact, well after we’d already resumed most of our daily activities, it’s unlikely that we saved many at all. It was a steep burden to ask our kids to shoulder.

But, as Keeton put it so eloquently back then, in the early days of the pandemic, it provided life lessons for our youth. And now we head into the second year of a global pandemic armed with much more knowledge about what to do — and, perhaps more importantly, what not to do — if this virus surges back, or if — heaven forfend — a similar virus rears its ugly head later in our lifetimes.

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Ben Garrett
Ben Garrett is Independent Herald editor. Contact him at bgarrett@ihoneida.com. Follow him on Twitter, @benwgarrett.
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