I’m sorry, but there’s just no other way to put it. So I’ll be blunt.
We knew it was coming, had ample time to brace for it, and that did little to cushion the blow.
In the span of about 90 minutes today, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee announced that schools would be closed for the remainder of the academic year, and TSSAA announced that sports were canceled as well.
We knew, whether we wanted to admit it or not, that the first announcement was coming. And once the first announcement came, the second was inevitable. But, man, talk about a one-two punch. One to the gut and then one to the jaw … down for the count.
It’s not just the sports that matter, of course. There are a lot of young people hurting tonight who never stepped foot onto a soccer pitch or a baseball diamond. If you don’t feel sorry for the high school seniors, you might not have much of a heart. They have a lot of life ahead of them and in 20 years this crisis we’re in right now won’t much matter. If anything, it’ll teach them a lesson they’ll carry with them the rest of their life: Never take anything for granted. But, still, let’s be real: the absolute best three or four months of your life are those months just before and just after high school graduation. You carry those memories with you forever. And these seniors are having it ripped away from them … through no fault of their own.
But the sports … man, that’s even tougher. That’s a double-whammy. Especially for the seniors who have (had?) a legitimate shot of playing college ball.
I’m not faulting Gov. Lee or TSSAA. They had tough decisions to make and they made them. Each is trying to navigate waters that none of us have ever been in before. There’s no road map for how to proceed.
But I’ll admit that I had a moment Tuesday night. It would’ve been eighth grade night for soccer players at my kids’ middle school. Eighth graders aren’t sacrificing as much as seniors during this crisis — not by a long shot. But they are giving up a lot in their own right. My kids were excited about graduation, about 8th grade prom, about a Beta Club trip.
My daughter has been a starting forward on her middle school team since she was a sixth grader, and they’ve been fortunate enough to win a championship both years. Her goal was to make it three-for-three. She won’t get that chance. That didn’t bother me much until Tuesday, when I realized it would’ve been 8th grade night. Then it kinda hit home a little bit more.
But here’s the thing: As much as my kids are hurting, they have a chance to do all of this over again. My daughter may never get another chance to be a team leader like she was going to be this year, may never get to play for another championship … but she still has four years of soccer ahead of her at Scott High.
My son at least got to finish basketball season — his first love — before this pandemic interrupted everything, and he’ll have four years of that in high school, too … may even get summer camp in, with any luck.
And those graduation ceremonies and proms and all that stuff? They’ll get to do that over again, too.
Hopefully these seniors get to do that stuff, too. Gov. Lee’s recommendation on Wednesday left the door open for those special end-of-year events, and local school administrators have made it clear that they want those things to happen, if possible. Not that it’s anyone’s control, at this point; all the kids and their teachers and their school administrators can do is wait and watch and hope and pray.
But the sports … we know how that ends.
And all we’re left with is the wondering … the what-ifs, the coulda-beens.
When this thing started five weeks ago — it feels more like five months — Oneida was preparing to show off on Tennessee high school basketball’s biggest stage for the first time in 22 years. Eight teams were left standing, the Indians were one of them, and they were at the top of their game.
Oneida had worked for a year to get to that point. As soon as the final horn sounded in a 5-point loss to Cosby in the sectional game in March 2019, Coach Jacob King made it clear that his team’s goal was to get to Murfreesboro this year.
At one point, along about Thanksgiving, I had my doubts that would happen. I even said so out loud. The Indians missed the point guard play of Chance Botts too much. They missed the depth they lost to graduation last year. Not that Nathan Bowling wasn’t doing a good job at PG; he’s the best player in District 3-A. But, still …
Then, boy, did they prove me wrong. By Christmas I had changed my tune. Not only could this team get to Murfreesboro, but they should get there. I said that out loud, too. By February, I was looking ahead to how much noise the Indians could make when they got there.
Not only was Oneida good enough to stand toe-to-toe with anybody in the Elite Eight, but they got a favorable draw. East Robertson, their first round opponent, would’ve probably been the Indians’ preference if they’d gotten to pick. If they won that one, they would likely have faced Clay County for the right to play in the state championship game, likely against Booker T. Washington.
Could the Indians have won back-to-back games to get to the final day of play? Could they have won three games in three days to bring home the gold ball for the first time in school history?
We’ll never know. All we can do is wonder.
This Oneida team is plenty talented enough to be right back in Murfreesboro next year — if they can overcome the loss of all of their post players to graduation. Guys like Bowling and Kolby Morgan and Jeric Huling will see to that.
But those seniors, if they’re there, it won’t be in uniform, and they won’t be on the bench. There’s Dalton Yancey, who might’ve been the best post player in District 3 this year. Elijah West, a defensive specialist who battled back from a knee injury in a remarkable hurry just to give himself a chance to play football and basketball his senior season. Jordan Perry, who came on strong this year to provide quality depth and was a sometimes starter. And Andrew Dewitt, who might very well have been the key difference in Oneida’s Region 2-A championship win over Harriman to earn the Indians a substate game at home.
And that’s just basketball.
What about the rest?
Oneida soccer coach Derek Keeton said his team might’ve been “the best team nobody got to see play.” The Indians were that good. They paid their dues last year, when they overcame the loss of their top offensive weapon, Danner Keeton, and still played their way into a district championship. This year, they felt like they were good enough to get to the state tournament for the first time in school history. This was their year, the season that Keeton had been looking towards since he took the Oneida job two years ago.
How good could that senior-laden team — with leadership at the top from players like Zac Hacker and Josh Alcorn — have been? All we can do is wonder.
While Oneida was drilling Clinton in its season-opener, Scott High was thrashing Cumberland Gap. Eric Henry’s Highlanders, too, were much-improved. Their win over the Panthers was nothing short of impressive. They had two young all-region-caliber players in Connor Stanley and Josiah Fladie to accompany a seasoned senior group that included players like Alex Rector and Sawyer Roberts.
How good could they have been? All we can do is wonder.
Scott High’s softball team started off with an absolute offensive explosion against Jellico. How good could Chad Marcum’s team have been? And what about Joe Carver’s Highlander baseball team?
Chad McDowell’s Oneida baseball team was looking like the biggest turn-around story in District 4-A to start the season. The Indians’ ace pitcher, Jakob Hamilton, pitched a complete-game no-hitter and struck out 13 the day the season came to a halt. He’s a senior; when he stepped off the mound that evening, it was for the final time in an Oneida uniform. Could he and his teammates have played their way into district championship contention against teams like Rockwood and Oliver Springs? And what about the Lady Indians softball team and their first-year head coach, Richard Graves?
All of those teams at least got to start their season. The Scott High track and field team didn’t even get that far. They didn’t get to their first meet. And after a banner year last year, as a sophomore, how good could Leslie Gansore have been this year? How many school records would she hold by the time it was over?
All we can do is wonder.
There are life lessons and learning experiences that these student-athletes can take from this, of course. How often do coaches tell their kids to play every game as if it’s their last? Like it’s their last shot, their last pitch, their last time on the field. For a lot of high school student-athletes, not just at Oneida and Scott High but throughout Tennessee and the U.S., that’s no longer just empty pleading from their coach. Suddenly it has real meaning. Because, sometimes, that last game comes long before we expect it, and long before we’re ready.
And it sucks.