As the delays mounted up and in-school instruction officially was canceled for the rest of the school year Friday, Tuesday’s news from the Illinois High School Association was inevitable. But for the area’s 24 schools, the foresight didn’t soften the blow when the IHSA officially canceled spring tournaments after Tuesday’s Board of Directors meeting.
“You always had that glimmer of hope that something [good] might happen,” Central athletic director Jeff Fenton said. “But when we got school canceled for the rest of the year, we all knew it was coming, unfortunately.”
In previous statements, IHSA executive director Craig Anderson maintained while the state was hopeful to figure out a way to get a delayed season in, any further delays to the academic calendar likely would result in cancellation. Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker and the Illinois State Board of Education made that decision Friday, with the IHSA following suit after Tuesday’s meeting.
“We support the decision by Governor Pritzker and the Illinois State Board of Education, and given the logistics, we simply felt we could not conduct state tournaments that meet the expectations of our member schools this spring,” Anderson said in a statement Tuesday. “As disappointing as it may be for students, it is the right decision for their health and safety, as well as for the health and safety of the general public, as we cope with this unprecedented pandemic.”
While coaches, teachers and administrators across the state, and largely the country, are dealing with the reality the kids they care for won’t get to enjoy their spring seasons, some have felt that sorrow personally as much as they have professionally.
Dan Hutchings is Coal City’s athletic director and football coach, and is also the father of Payton, an Illinois-bound pitcher for a Coalers baseball team that had its eyes set on a state trophy as so many other local teams in a talent-rich spring sports area. Hutchings said although it could be worse, the unanswered question of what could have been will linger for quite a while.
“It’s like a punch in the gut; there are worse things that could happen,” Hutchings said. “The toughest thing as a group is that there’s no closure or finality to their careers.
“[The seniors] won state in eighth grade, and I remember telling them that it was a great accomplishment, but that it really means something to do it in high school,” he went on to say. “It stuck with them, and while they did get that chance for three years, they didn’t get that closure.”
Bradley-Bourbonnais athletic director and football coach Mike Kohl shared Hutchings’ perspective on where the cancellation of spring sports tournaments in the grand scheme of the COVID-19 pandemic. The theme of loving one another plays a big part in Kohl’s perspective with his football team and is a message the school is spreading throughout.
“There are a lot of people in the community that are hurting financially, people that have lost jobs, frontline workers that are in the middle of all of it,” Kohl said. “Trying to keep that message of loving each other is something in this time that we’re trying to spread to the kids.”
The IHSA offers state tournaments in the following sports and activities in the spring: girls badminton, boys gymnastics, bass fishing, boys and girls track & field, boys and girls water polo, girls soccer, boys tennis, boys and girls Lacrosse, boys volleyball, baseball and softball.
Bradley-Bourbonnais, the area’s largest school, offers all spring sports except boys gymnastics, boys and girls lacrosse and boys volleyball. Kohl said with so many sports seeing their seasons end before they started, there are scores of student-athletes who won’t ever know just how successful they could have been this season.
“I think the biggest thing athletically is just the number of kids impacted,” Kohl said. “Our boys water polo team might have been the best in school history, and girls soccer, too. You can say it’s just the seniors [missing this season], but for the juniors, it could be the best team they ever play on.
“I think a lot of the kids understand the big picture, but it still hurts,” Kohl added. “Our school is big on school spirit and runs through that, so it’s just a big loss.”
Trinity and Grace Christian are IHSA-recognized schools and play a significant amount of nonconference games with IHSA members but are members of the Illinois Christian Conference and Association of Christian Schools International and had been basing decisions alongside what came from the state government and the IHSA.
With the cancellation of its conference tournament and the IHSA also canceling, Trinity athletic director, boys basketball coach and softball coach Mike Lawrence said their season is likely done as well.
“We were holding out, but I think we’re done,” Lawrence said. “It’s hard, but with everything going on, our choice is that we’ve just gotta move on.”
The IHSA’s ruling didn’t just put an end to spring sports tournaments. Other extracurricular activities such as music, farm and agriculture clubs and academic competitions also saw their seasons ended, the same result as events such as plays and other performances.
“By the time you add in band and their organizational contests, for us the [Future Farmers of America] is big at [Central], those kids lost a lot of end of the year activities,” Fenton said. “If you’re not just counting sports, probably half to two-thirds of the kids had something that they lost.”
The IHSA’s announcement also included information about summer workouts and contact days, which also are on hold. As it stands, the ability for summer activities such as athletic camps and football 7-on-7 tournaments will be postponed.
“It’s on my mind because I want to best prepare our fall athletes,” Kohl said. “Our kids need to train to compete, so our kids need a summer weight room program and install periods, especially contact sports.”
A caveat near the end of the IHSA’s announcement didn’t entirely close the door to allowing teams to potentially put together some sort of senior send-off game, saying they will continue to be in contact with state health officials in regards to updates of summer contact days and the chance of any spring participation, although the state tournaments will not be played.
“The possibility of playing a spring sport game this summer is about closure,” Anderson said. “If we are able to offer this opportunity, no student-athlete would be restricted by having already practiced or competed with a non-school team.”