It was the right decision. Hands down.
The task assigned to Wyoming High School Activities Association Associate Commissioner Trevor Wilson was daunting.
You could hear his voice trembling with nerves. See the pain splashed across his face. Realize the uncertainty of his message.
March 12 was the first day of what promised to be a thrilling ride. Two days later, champions were supposed to be crowned.
But trophies were never hoisted. Hugs never shared. Podium pictures never captured. Jubilation never felt.
In a matter of minutes, the Oil City was turned upside down. The Class 3A and 4A state basketball tournaments were “shut down” less than two hours after tipping off in Casper.
As the Green River and Cheyenne Central girls got underway in a 4A quarterfinal at “Swede” Erickson Thunderbird Gym just after 9 a.m. that mid-winter morning, little did Wilson know the forthcoming events would make the following hours seem like days, even weeks.
Moments before the second half started, Wilson approached the scorer’s table, reached over and grabbed the wireless microphone. He took a deep breath and paused.
“After this game, there will be no media or fans allowed,” said Wilson, his voice quivering as if he were giving a speech he wasn’t prepared for. (No pun intended.)
Wilson was, indeed, giving a speech – all of a few words – and it turned a once-rowdy T-Bird Gym into stone-cold silence and disbelief.
The night before, the Wyoming Tribune Eagle confirmed the first case of the novel coronavirus in Sheridan County. Wilson and the WHSAA found out soon after.
The plan from the very beginning, Wilson said, was for the state tournaments to be played in full. Looking back, it would have been a relief to watch young men and women compete on the hardwood for three days, shifting our focus and efforts away from the pandemic that was spreading like wildfire across the nation and the world.
Wilson and his colleagues were given two options by the Casper-Natrona County Health Department: Play the tournaments without fans and media, or shut it down completely.
The thought of canceling it all was the absolute last resort.
Plans changed in a matter of minutes.
When the final horn buzzed, the scoreboard read Central 62, Green River 37. Senior Ellie Fearneyhough had arguably one of the best games of her career – on the biggest stage, mind you – with 17 points and 20 rebounds to help the Lady Indians come within a game of playing for a state championship.
She likely never imagined that would be the final game of her career. Or the final game of the tournament. Period.
Shortly after the game went final, Wilson, this time displaying a more panicked demeanor, grabbed the mic once again.
Just after 10:30 a.m., news broke: The state tournaments were ordered to be shut down, according to the Casper-Natrona County Health Department, Wilson echoed woefully – almost as if he wished the mic was switched off while he was talking – throughout the building.
It was the phrase he never wanted to mutter – the one he knew, in a matter of time, he might have needed to do.
“I’ve never in my lifetime experienced anything like this,” said Wilson, who has been an administrator for 20 years, including the past 15 in his current role. “We always have game issues or weather or whatever, but this is ... it’s not like anything I’ve ever dealt with in my life.”
He looked down the court for a brief moment. Then reality started to sink in.
“I wasn’t scared two weeks ago,” he continued, “but now I’m getting a little more concerned about the health and safety.”
Wilson was brutally honest. You could hear the pain in his voice, and you couldn’t help but feel horrible for the position he was in.
It was the right call. Through and through.
On that day, the unthinkable happened. An asterisk will be placed next to “2020 Class 3A and 4A basketball state tournament results” on the WHSAA website for eternity, along with hundreds of what-ifs.
What if the Central girls would have gone on to win their third title in program history, the first since 2008? Better yet: What if the Cheyenne East boys, who, just days earlier, eliminated top-ranked Central, had won it all?
I understand the frustration (anger?), sadness and even resentment toward the WHSAA for making this decision. I feel for those seniors whose careers were cut short and those who didn’t get to play their final game(s).
But this is bigger than sports. Simple as that.
Here’s to hoping those emotions can be used as a symbol of strength during this time of uncertainty – one cemented in unity.
The sobering reality of it all is simple: This had to be done, for the safety of everyone.
This isn’t some cruel hoax or joke. It’s real life. Last spring, if you recall, I wrote a piece in this very space regarding good sportsmanship and how abuse of officials and players needed to cease. In that same space, I mentioned it was just a game, not life or death.
But the current pandemic is. And that’s why the tournament couldn’t go on.