March Sadness: OSAA cancels tourney finals due to virus threat
La Salle Prep girls basketball coach Kelli Wedin was watching game film Thursday morning in her room at the team hotel in Corvallis.
Wedin received a text message at 10:05 a.m. from La Salle athletic director Chris George, telling her that the OSAA 5A tournament at Oregon State University's Gill Coliseum had been suspended.
An hour later, George called Wedin, this time to tell her that the OSAA had decided to cancel the remainder of its winter sports championship tournaments due to the rapidly evolving coronavirus public health threat.
"I called in my coaching staff, called in the player, and I told them the news in my room at about 11:15 a.m.," Wedin said. "It was awful, crushing, and devastating, and you just don't have words.
"I get the bigger picture stuff, but the decision was just so abrupt, so unexpected. You just can't wrap your brain around it, because it's not something that you've ever thought was possible."
The defending state champion Falcons defeated Corvallis 65-46 in Tuesday's quarterfinals, setting the stage for a much-anticipated showdown with Northwest Oregon Conference-rival Wilsonville in Thursday's semifinals.
"There was a lot of hype," Wedin said. "We were as ready as we could be, and I'm sure Wilsonville was prepared because they're a great team, too. But, man, just not having that opportunity, it's heartbreaking."
Delivering the news was not easy.
"It was the toughest conversation I've ever had with my team," Wedin said. "And it's just ironic that we were getting ready to go to Gill where we've had those tears that go with the thrill of victory, and the tears the go with the agony of defeat. Today, these were tears that were on an entirely different level. It was just really tough, especially for our two seniors."
The stunning end to the OSAA winter season came on a day that saw sweeping cancellations and postponements across all levels of sports from high school to college and the professional ranks, both in the U.S. and around the world.
"As this unprecedented public health emergency continues to evolve, we believe that the responsibility to our member schools and communities regarding the health and safety of participants remains our highest priority," OSAA Executive Director Peter Weber said in a news release.
In addition to the basketball tournaments coming to an end, the OSAA dance and drill championships scheduled for March 20-21 at Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Portland also were canceled.
On Friday, after Oregon Gov. Kate Brown ordered the state's public schools to cancel classes through March 31 in an effort to prevent the spread of coronavirus, the OSAA suspended interscholastic practices and contests in all spring sports and activities for all member schools through the end of the month.
The OSAA's plan now is to continue to evaluate the situation with the Oregon Health Authority, the Oregon Department of Education, the OSAA Executive Board, the OSAA Sports Medicine Advisory Committee, and member school administrators from throughout the state to determine a timeline to resume the spring season or just scrub it all together.
"You've got to err on the side of caution and I'm all about that, but my kids are devastated," Wedin said. "Of course, it's probably the right thing to do, and I don't disagree with that. But it just doesn't take away from the emotional trauma.
"It's hard for me as a coach, too. I get choked up telling them and talking to them about it, and hugging and crying and just trying to be there for each other. But at the same time, I don't have any words of comfort. Nothing is going to make them feel better about this day right now."
Since making the jump from to 4A Tri-Valley Conference to the 5A NWOC, La Salle has been one of the state's most successful girls basketball programs across all classifications, compiling a six-year record of 147-21 overall with state championships in 2015, 2017, and 2019.
The Falcons were 24-3 and riding a 13-game winning streak into Thursday's semifinal when the season abruptly ended.
"The season seems so tainted now," Wedin said. "I know it's obviously a bigger deal than basketball, but it doesn't take away from the emotions and all the feelings that go with everything that the players have done to prepare for this moment."
Clackamas boys basketball coach Cameron Mitchell had a sinking feeling when he woke up Thursday morning that 6A tournament at the University of Portland's Chiles Center was in jeopardy of being canceled.
The OSAA had responded to Gov. Brown's initial order to ban public gatherings of more than 250 people by saying Wednesday night that the state tournament would carry on without any spectators. Only players, coaches, essential arena personnel, and OSAA-credentialed media would be admitted, while fans were directed to watch or listen to the game online.
But by Thursday morning, Mitchell could see the cancellations that were taking place at some of the NCAA conference basketball tournaments in other parts of the country and he assumed that it was only a matter of time before the OSAA followed suit.
Mitchell arrived at the Chiles Center in time for the scheduled 11 a.m. coaches' meeting where Weber broke the news.
"All the coaches understood, but it was still a shock," Mitchell said. "The guys were really heartbroken when they heard it was canceled, but I also think they understood that what's going on is a lot bigger than basketball and with potentially larger repercussions if it's not handled properly.
"We had a good meeting with the team. We got together and had some laughs and shed a few tears and just kind of talked for a bit."
Clackamas enjoyed a breakout season with the addition of Ben Gregg, the 6-foot-9 junior who transferred in from Columbia Christian and helped lead the Cavaliers to a 21-5 record a year after they had gone 8-16 and missed the 6A playoffs.
"That's a pretty spectacular turnaround and it's a testament to the guys," Mitchell said. "Yes, we were playing well, but that being said, of the eight teams that were left, I think everyone had a shot at winning it all.
"That's something I'm trying to not think about now. It's over, but that 'what if' is something that will always be in the back of our minds."
Clackamas defeated Mountain View 70-45 in the opening round, and then edged Grant 69-66 in the round of 16, which propelled the Cavaliers into Thursday's 3:15 p.m. quarterfinal against Mt. Hood Conference-rival Central Catholic (19-7).
"Central Catholic is a really good team and they had been playing well as of late, but we were confident that we had a great game plan going in," Mitchell said. "We were going to try some new things against them that we thought were really going to help us. But the thing that made us a good team this year is we were confident going into every game."
And then there was no game.
"The OSAA had to make that call," Mitchell said. "It's a safety issue for the kids. Everyone else was canceling their tournaments and … absolutely, they made the right call. Obviously, people are going to be upset about it, but 100 percent, that was the right call.
"The biggest thing I told my kids was, 'Hey, let's not remember this season for how it ended. Let's remember it for all the great things we did and how we stayed together as a team and played with class and played with pride.' That's what I want our guys to remember."
Gladstone boys basketball coach Cody Aker had to get to Forest Grove High School for an 11 a.m. coaches meeting before Thursday's 4A quarterfinals, so he drove separately, leaving about an hour ahead of his team's scheduled 10:40 a.m. departure.
"When you first get there, everybody is usually congratulating one another on getting to the final site," Aker said. "But this time, the mood was different, because we'd already heard that the 5A tournament had been suspended."
Kelly Foster and Brad Garrett of the OSAA let Aker and the other coaches know what was happening.
Aker then sent a text message to assistant Ryan Browning, who was on the bus with the team. He told Browning that the tournament had been canceled and that he would like to meet with the players if the bus driver could find a place to stop and park.
"We ended up meeting at the Hillsboro Costco," Aker said. "By the time I got there, the news was already out on social media, so the kids had already seen it and just needed me to confirm that the season was over."
How did the team take it?
"Sad disbelief," Aker said. "Everybody was kind of in a fog. It was like, 'How could this have happened?' And not only that but three of our five seniors were scheduled to leave Sunday morning on an East Coast trip and that got canceled as well."
The Gladiators had been playing some of their best basketball of the season, closing out the regular season with six straight wins to finish at Tri-Valley Conference co-champions with North Marion.
Gladstone then defeated North Marion 58-54 in a one-game playoff to secure home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs where the Gladiators opened with a 71-67 win over perennial 4A power Seaside.
Next up, a game against top-ranked Marist Catholic in Thursday's 1:30 p.m. quarterfinal in Forest Grove.
"After the Seaside game, you have about a week to prepare going into the tournament," Aker said. "To put in all that work and then there's no opportunity for any real closure, no opportunity to let the emotion out by playing or coaching … that was tough for me.
"The nice thing about my life is I've got two young kids and I was able to go home right after school and be with them for a couple hours, which I haven't done in a while with the kind of season that we were having. So, it was fun in that regard, but it was not fun from a basketball standpoint."
Aker endorsed the OSAA's decision to cancel the tournament.
"I think it's the right thing in the sense that if there really is this long incubation period that they're saying the disease has, you know basketball is a contact sport and you're wearing each other's sweat most of the time," Aker said. "To play those games would potentially put some people in harm's way.
"That's kind of what I told our guys, too. You know, what happens if you go visit grandma over spring break and then all of a sudden she gets it? The OSAA's decision is not a popular choice, but it's a prudent choice, and this needed to happen."
Gladstone finished 20-5, reaching the 20-win plateau for the first time since the 2014-15 season — Aker's first season as head coach — when the Gladiators also went 20-5.
"It was a tremendous season," Aker said. "We talked about trying to put some new numbers on the banners in the gym, whether it was a league title or something in the post-season.
"We were able to accomplish one of those goals in that we put a '2020' on the banner for a league championship, which the kids are really excited about."
What's next? Nobody knows for sure.
The OSAA is expected to reevaluate its position on spring sports in the first week of April, but there is no telling if the coronavirus threat will have subsided by then, remained about the same, or possibly gotten worse.
"What we're dealing with is unprecedented," said Aker, who also serves at Gladstone's athletic director. "We've never had something like this before.
"A lot of kids across the state, whether we're talking about baseball, softball, track, golf … this might force some kids to do some things on their own, whether it's playing pepper or playing long toss or going on a run or doing things that a lot of kids don't do anymore. Maybe this reinvigorates some of them, which would be cool to see."
By Jim Beseda
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