Ray Mitchell was the last person to leave the East Lansing locker room last Wednesday night at St. Johns High School after his Trojan boys basketball team had won its district opener convincingly over the host Redwings.
A date with Grand Ledge had been booked — what would be the teams’ third meeting this season (East Lansing won the first two) — and beyond that was the idea that a regional berth at Portage Northern would be the team’s next postseason destination.
“Let’s get past Grand Ledge first,” Mitchell said cautiously, putting on his overcoat, “then we can think about regionals.”
Meanwhile, East Lansing athletic director Nikki Norris had left that same gymnasium thinking about the regional final that the Trojan girls basketball team was scheduled to play last Thursday night at Holt. Norris had a notion the Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) was planning to limit the number of attendees at each regional final, which led her to work out a plan ahead of time in conjunction with Holt’s athletic director, Renee Sadler.
That same day, at the East Lansing High School pool, seven Trojan swimmers were finishing their final laps in preparation for the Division 2 state finals at the Holland Aquatic Center.
And then everything changed.
At 2:25 p.m. Thursday, the MHSAA indefinitely suspended all winter postseason tournaments due to concerns related to the coronavirus, COVID-19.
“It’s been frenzied … frenetic … with things changing as quickly as they have, we’ve done our best to be flexible and keep everyone informed,” Norris said Monday morning. “(Last) Thursday morning at 10 a.m. we received notification that we’d be allowed 50 spectators at the girls game that night. I actually thought that might be coming, and had a plan for that.”
A plan for what will follow is being worked on this week as Norris “gets her bearings” after a chain of events over 48 hours that few could have predicted: the suspension of the winter sports postseason and start of the spring season, and the three-week shutdown of all schools statewide. East Lansing will observe its spring break the week of April 6-10, which means Trojan athletes will have been unable to use school facilities or equipment for at least four weeks.
That is, if the tournaments or seasons get started immediately after spring break. Norris and her fellow athletic directors at the 19 schools that comprise the Capital Area Activities Conference (CAAC) have begun discussing how to address post-suspension scenarios.
“CAAC athletic directors have talked about calling a meeting to discuss what a shortened or compressed [spring] season would look like,” Norris said. “Most of the league contests weren’t scheduled to begin until after the spring break. It could be salvaged, but you’re obviously not going to get your maximum number of contests in. I think we could at least get our league schedule played and get ready for the postseason.”
If the seasons are to resume within a month, Norris and coaches like Kerry Keyton — assistant football coach at East Lansing, head track and field coach at Everett — want to make sure their atheletes are properly conditioned to resume training or competition.
“The biggest obstacle I see right now would be conditioning,” Norris said. “Hopefully all of our athletes are out on their own [doing what they can to stay in playing shape] but we also have to be realistic. We’ve all shut down our schools, and they can’t lift and they can’t shoot. They can’t use our facilities and our coaches can’t lead anything. Once we return, we’d need some time to acclimate.”
Keyton concurred and emphasized the importance of some type of daily workout, whether individually or within a small group.
“The hardest part is not being able to meet with and guide the young people,” Keyton said. “While some of our athletes are self-motivated, many need the guidance of our coaches to get the necessary work in. I believe we will have a season at some point.”
Which season that is may be difficult to predict, at this point. Both of East Lansing’s basketball teams — as well as its state-bound swimmers — have a vested interest in resuming their postseason tournaments.
“I know it’s hard for high school students to think they’ve played their last basketball game or competed in their last swim meet,” Norris said “The next couple of weeks will tell us how quickly we can get through this. Is it feasible? It could be done. The folks at the MHSAA are very creative and resourceful … they all know we want the games to go on.”
East Lansing girls basketball assistant coach Cosette Buckberry helped create and distribute “commitment bracelets” (above) for teammates and coaches to share durign this period of indefinite suspension. According to head coach Rob Smith, the bracelets symbolize a “commitment to stay focused, stay determined and not give up on the season or each other.”
Smith said meeting with the team last Friday was difficult but reassuring.
“We were able to sit down the very last day at school and share our thoughts and feelings about everything,” Smith said. “These girls are all very grounded, very focused. Their experience in all of the various trials and tribulations we’ve been through, you know, the various levels of adversity … I mean, their ability to take a look at this and move on in a way that, hopefully, will keep them ready for when their opportunity comes.”
The Trojan boys and girls varsity basketball teams have won a combined 42 of 45 games this season. Smith, in his 18th season as head coach at East lansing, likes to win as much as anyone else. But he also offered these words when summing up the situation a hand.
“How many times have you heard someone say, ‘I wish life would slow down a bit. I wish I had more time to spend with family. I wish I had more time work in the yard, or paint the garage,” Smith said. “It seems like God has slowed us all down and said, ‘Here’s your wish. So take some time to reflect on what’s really important.’”