Evanson: Our norm is under attack, and it's leaving a sea of sadness in its wake
What in the wide wide world of sports is going on here? Nothing, that's what's going on, and that's what likely will be going on for some time to come.
By now you'd have to have had your head in the sand not to be aware of the stand-still we as a society, and really world as a whole are in regarding the sports we use to entertain and distract us virtually year-round. Gone are the NCAA men's and women's basketball tournaments, all spring sports at the collegiate level, and even the XFL. In addition, the NBA, NHL, NASCAR, Major League Baseball, MLS, the PGA Tour, and virtually every professional soccer league worldwide are at least on hold — and all due to a not-so-little thing we call COVID-19.
But while many of the games and stars that play them are on standby, it's the stories left in the wake of the cancellations that had me in a funk last Wednesday and Thursday night as the avalanche of bad news repeatedly beat me into submission.
Much of my job involves watching high school sports. Through the good, and less-than-such games and performances perpetually on my plate, I watch and talk to the players and coaches working on the various courts and fields of play towards the singular goal of winning. I get to know them to an extent, and without question am familiarized with the time and effort put forth to make that goal happen. These outcomes aren't the product of a season's worth of work, but often a year or years' worth of commitment necessary to winning a conference and/or state title — and only a limited few will reap that reward.
Now no one will, and that sucks.
These are serious times, and such require serious measures. People are at risk, and we can mitigate that risk by staying ahead of the curve. Let's be clear about that. But while our hands may be tied regarding what we can and can't do in order to limit the ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic, it doesn't lessen the reaction to the actions taken to do so, and I think it's important that we recognize that as well.
People have poured their hearts and souls into sports such as basketball, softball, baseball, and countless other activities, and with the cancellation of many of such, we buried the treasure promised them as the result of their hard work. If you think that's "nothing," you're sadly mistaken.
Exhibit-A: The Oregon women's basketball team. A year removed from a trip to the Final Four and a narrow semifinal loss to eventual champion Baylor, the No. 2-ranked Ducks women were considered by many to be the favorites entering this year's NCAA Tournament. Armed with the nation's best player and consensus number one pick in the coming WNBA draft, Sabrina Ionescu, along with 2020 Cheryl Miller Award finalist Satou Sabally, and 4-time All-Pac-12 recipient Ruthy Hebard, the Ducks steamrolled their way to a 31-2 overall record and were peaking heading into this year's March Madness, winning 19 straight and by an average margin of 25 points over that span. It genuinely felt like their year — and it's over.
"This will never happen again," Oregon head coach Kelly Graves said about his team in a press conference last week. "It just won't happen again. There won't be another group like this, ever. We might have equally impressive teams, but what this group did to capture the imagination and the attention and the love of a new fan base was incredible."
Exhibit-B: The University of Portland women's basketball team. Following a fourth place finish in the West Coast Conference, the Pilot women punched their ticket into the NCAA Tournament with upset wins over first place Gonzaga and second place San Diego. Portland's trip to the "Big Dance" would've been their first in more than two decades.
Exhibit-C: Payton Pritchard. One of the best to ever lace-up the sneakers in the state of Oregon, the 4-time state high school champion at West Linn and 2020 Pac-12 Men's Player of the Year had his career prematurely come to an end due to last week's shutdown. Like, but not quite to the extent of the University of Oregon's girls team, the Ducks men's team — led by Pritchard — was going to be a player in this year's March Madness, and Pritchard was going to have one final run prior to what he hopes will be a shot at the NBA.
Exhibit-D: The Liberty High School girls basketball team. This one might hurt the most. The Falcons have been building to this point for four years. Their senior class consisting of posts Clara Robbins and Breeze Bartle, guards Talia Kahakai –Wyatt and Savy Castillo, along with wings Alexa Smith and Alyssa Chronister, coupled with junior guards Taylin Smith and Livia Knapp have been on mission. The group won nine games three years ago, 10 the following season, and last year graduated to 16 wins and shared a Pacific Conference title. But this season they were 24-3 overall, undefeated on the way to a league crown, and last Wednesday, March 11, impressively dispatched Mountainside en route to a semifinal matchup with top-ranked Beaverton. They were playing with confidence, swagger, and the type of joy that comes from succeeding at a high level.
These girls loved to play, and they seemed to love each other in the process. They deserved a better ending, and they weren't alone.
It's done. March Madness and our state basketball tournaments aren't happening. Our professional sports are on hiatus, and the prep spring seasons are in serious jeopardy as the coronavirus strengthens its grip on what we all take for granted. Schools are closed, social activities have been strongly discouraged, and our elderly and most vulnerable are at risk from an indiscriminate assailant wreaking havoc on our norm. But while paling in comparison to the life and death matter before us, our sports matter too — and their absence is being felt.
Wade Evanson is the News-Times' sports editor.
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