By MICHAEL BURWELL
About four months ago, The Courier’s sports department was just wrapping up arguably its busiest fall sports season in recent memory. Three state championship matches in volleyball and soccer and seven playoff football games featuring area teams highlighted one weekend in particular.
Never would I have thought that the next sports season, in the same school year, would reach the point we are officially at now.
No state tournaments in basketball and wrestling.
The slimmest of hopes for a conclusion to the winter sports season were erased on Thursday with the Ohio High School Athletic Association’s decision to cancel the remaining 2019-20 state tournaments in girls basketball, wrestling and hockey, as well as regional and state boys basketball, due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Three area boys basketball teams with a combined 75-2 record and 16 area wrestlers, including eight seniors who have made their mark as some of the best to ever come through their respective schools, won’t get a chance to finish on top.
It’s a harsh reality. But one that we will have to somehow find a way to accept.
“There’s just so many things that are out of our control at a high school level and even at the OHSAA’s level, there’s just a lot of things they can’t control right now,” Liberty-Benton co-athletic director Nate Irwin said. “It’s a lot of emotions and a lot of people are upset, but at the end of the day, you’ve got to do what’s best.
“The decisions that are being made are tough, but they are the right decisions. Kids are pretty resilient, they’ll bounce back and there’s definitely going to be a lot of kids that will remember 2020, especially for those seniors.”
The initial decision two and a half weeks ago by the OHSAA to conduct winter sports tournaments with a limited amount of fans, and the decision later in the week to postpone all prep sports in Ohio, weren’t popular by any means.
But OHSAA Executive Director Jerry Snodgrass has made it clear that he is following the advice from Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, the Ohio Department of Health, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in regard to the coronavirus.
Sports at every level — including high school, college, professional and earlier this week the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo — have been postponed or canceled across the globe due to the pandemic. The OHSAA had to follow suit and put the health and safety of everyone first.
“We are just devastated that the tournaments cannot be completed,” Snodgrass said in a release Thursday. “But our priority is the safety of our student-athletes, coaches, communities and officials. Governor Mike DeWine is asking all Ohioans to do everything they can to stop the spread of this virus. That request, along with our schools not being able to reopen for weeks, means that school sports cannot happen at this time. Even if our schools reopen this spring, it will be difficult to find facilities willing to host the tournaments. Most campuses are shut down until mid to late summer.
“We are already planning for ways that these student-athletes will be honored at next year’s state tournament.”
Although most people expected the official cancellation to eventually happen as the COVID-19 situation grows more serious every day, it is still hard to process.
No more wild last-second tournament finishes this season from Upper Sandusky’s boys basketball team.
No more stat-stuffing performances this season from Blake Reynolds and the rest of Columbus Grove’s team that was one of just two OHSAA boys basketball squads to not record a loss.
No more thunderous dunks from 6-foot-7 senior Ben Westrick and the rest of Ottawa-Glandorf’s tall timbers.
And no more gutsy performances from area wrestlers, who competed through serious injuries and pain to win sectional and district titles and earn the right to wrestle for a state title.
That’s a pretty hard pill to swallow.
“I know (Columbus Grove players) are bummed because they’re not getting a chance to finish off what they were hoping would be a dream season,” said Irwin, a Columbus Grove graduate who has three second cousins on the team. “It’s just a tough thing to deal with at the time, but they’ve got a lot of things to be thankful for.
“They had a great season and I know they would like to have played a few more games and hopefully finish it off. It’s just a tough situation and they’re not the only ones that are in that boat. To make a trip to Columbus isn’t easy and there’s a lot of schools that are in that same situation where this might have been their one team in a 40- or 50-year period that has a chance to win a title down there.”
You feel for the players who put their heart and soul into high school sports, especially the seniors whose careers ended with Thursday’s announcement.
We should, though, put our focus into what they did accomplish instead of what could have been.
Columbus Grove had arguably its best season in school history, setting a school record for wins in going 26-0 and finishing No. 1 in the final Associated Press Division IV poll.
Ottawa-Glandorf reached another regional tournament — its eighth in the past 10 years and 19th overall — in finishing 25-1.
Upper Sandusky (24-1) reached regionals for the first time since 2007 and third time overall. Some might remember a certain standout named Jon Diebler being a senior on that 2007 Division II state runner-up squad.
And of the eight senior wrestlers to qualify for state, six of them — Findlay’s Jonah Smith, Carey’s Tanner May, Van Buren’s Kaleb Snodgrass, Patrick Henry’s Wil Morrow and T.J. Rhamy and Elmwood’s Will Bechstein — were either multiple-time state qualifiers or state placers.
Let’s appreciate the feel-good moments that happened in the 2019-20 winter sports season.