GLADWIN – When I first conceived of this story last Thursday my biggest concern was what a tournament game would look like without fans. I had traveled to Clare on Wednesday to watch Gladwin take on Tawas in a boy’s second round game. While there was a decent crowd Wednesday night, it was sure to be dwarfed on Friday night when the hometown Pioneers took on Tawas in the district finals.

 At that point the Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) was still planning to allow the winter tournaments to continue with limited fan support. They were scheduled to make an announcement on Thursday, March 12 outlining their specific plans and policies for spectators at the upcoming ice hockey, gymnastics and basketball tournament games. They had already decided that the state swimming finals would be conducted with “no on-site spectators.” By that afternoon all their planning went “out the window” with the suspension of all high school athletics events and later the closing of schools until at least April 6.

I was actually on the phone with Gladwin Athletic Director Lauren Haines discussing possible interviews with senior athletes when the notification came across my phone. The MHSAA had decided to suspend all organized athletics. Events were moving so fast at this point that my idea was obsolete before I had conducted the first interview or written my first lines. Just like a mutating virus I had to change my focus from what it would feel like to play without fans to what it feels like to have your whole season in jeopardy. 

In this article I will try to highlight how the Coronavirus Covid-19 has affected the State of Michigan and local athletes. We have a lot of well-spoken student athletes representing Gladwin County and I had the opportunity to talk to several for this article.

Winter Sports

Completed Tournaments/Seasons: 

wrestling, bowling, competitive cheer, skiing 

The State Wrestling Finals were held on March 6 and 7. Gladwin County was well represented with sixth athletes qualifying for the event. Gladwin’s Dillon Kroening, Randy Pyrzewski, James Bailey and Kyle Campbell along with Jacob Cassiday and Jake Fischer from Beaverton. One of the most exciting aspects of the finals is the large crowd at Ford Field. There were several thousand fans in attendance for the event. With Covid-19 on the horizon the MHSAA would be facing some serious questions soon, but chose to go forward with unlimited attendance.

Several Gladwin County wrestlers were successful at the finals with Kroening winning the Division Three 171 lb. state title. When I talked to him this week the first thing he mentioned after being congratulated was that, “it was a special moment for my family and I.” He told me that the large crowd felt like a “dream.”

He had his mom, dad, sisters and girlfriend in the stands along with a large contingent of fans from Gladwin. He estimated that there were around 60 fans on Friday and even more on Saturday. He was very appreciative of the support and was glad that the MHSAA didn’t limit attendance. “It would have felt more like a practice if only my mom and dad could have been there.” Looking forward he is a bit apprehensive about this spring. He also plays baseball and as a senior has events like prom and graduation to look forward to.

Suspended 

Tournaments/Seasons:

basketball, gymnastics, ice hockey, swimming and diving

The first sports to be affected were girls and boys basketball. The girls’ tournament had advanced to the regional finals, which were scheduled for Thursday evening. The boys’ district finals were slated to take place on Friday night. All of the Gladwin County teams have been eliminated, but several Jack Pine Conference teams are still alive. Both Clare and Sanford Meridian were scheduled to play last Friday.

I had the opportunity to talk to Trey Plichta from Meridian on Sunday afternoon. Plichta is Meridian’s point guard and one of two starters that returned from last year’s quarterfinalists. The Mustangs won their fourth straight Jack Pine Conference Championship this year and were poised to make another long tournament run. Plichta thinks that this year’s team learned from last year’s and knows what it takes to make a long run. He said, “as a player I know it is eventually going to end. There is only one state champion and as a player you have the ability to go out on the court and give it your all. You have some control. It’s a much better feeling than ‘oh, now it’s gone. It was here yesterday and now it’s gone.’”

Plichta knows that his athletic career won’t end in high school. He is going to Oakland University where he will be a preferred walk on to both the track and cross-country teams. He told me that track is his “best” sport, but basketball is his “favorite.”

Several winter sports were within two days of finishing their seasons when the MHSAA acted. The State Finals in both swimming and diving, and gymnastics were scheduled for last weekend. The ice hockey tournament has reached the semifinals and was also scheduled to be completed last weekend.

After the NCAA cancelled its basketball tournaments people became more pessimistic than optimistic about the return of winter sports. Most seem to be resigned to the fate, but not Mick McCabe. The long time Detroit Free Press High School Sports writer offers a sliver of hope. He believes that by suspending rather than cancelling “maybe the MHSAA is looking for a way to give these athletes closure.” The only way to do that he continued was to “complete the state tournament.” I’m not counting on it, but it could happen.

When the NCAA began cancelling its winter tournaments most people immediately thought of the Division 1 Men’s Basketball Tournament-March Madness. While that is by far the NCAAs biggest event it wasn’t the only one to be cancelled. All of the spring tournaments and finals have also been cancelled. Of local interest is Indoor Track Championships that were scheduled for March 13-14. Heather Beecher from Gladwin and Ali Aldrich from Beaverton qualified to compete. Beecher, a pole vaulter, was scheduled to compete in the Division 3 meet in Winston-Salem North Carolina. Aldrich had qualified for the weight throw at the Division 2 meet in Birmingham, Alabama.

I had a chance to talk to Beecher over the weekend after she returned from North Carolina. She described a situation that became chaotic. Most of the athletes had already arrived on site and had been practicing for two days. She was disappointed that the cancellation occurred after they had already been exposed to the other athletes for two days. “It was really chaotic, schools were pulling out of the competition, so the NCAA was trying to bring in other competitors.” She said that many teams came up at the last minute only to find out that the meet had been called off by the time they arrived.

“Being a senior, it was obviously a huge let down not being able to complete the season.” Beecher was seeded third going into the meet so she had a very good shot a medaling. One of her teammates, Noah Zastrow, was seeded first in the male pole vault competition by a foot. “There is no doubt he would have won,” said Beecher.

The NCAA has decided to extend the eligibility for Division 1 athletes who have had their springs seasons cancelled due to the coronavirus. They have not made a decision regarding Division 2 and 3 athletes yet , but Beecher is hopeful. “The best case scenario would be some conference competitions late in the spring while retaining eligibility.” 

Beecher will be going to graduate school at Grand Valley State University next year. She is pursuing a career in physical therapy.  If she does have spring eligibility left she plans to try to vault next year at Grand Valley. 

Along with the events and practices that have been cancelled a moratorium has been placed all on-and-off campus recruiting. Spring football games and football pro days have also been called off.

Spring Sports: 

baseball, softball, track & field, lacrosse, girls soccer, girls tennis (lower peninsula), boys tennis (upper peninsula)

The most recent MHSAA update from March 13 outlines exactly what is expected from member schools.  All activities in all sports for all seasons are suspended through at least Sunday, April 5.  The key phrase in the statement is at least. What are the chances that athletes will be back on the field on April 6? To get an expert medical opinion I turned to my son Dr. Maxwell McDonald Jr. a Primary Care physician with a practice in the Grand Rapids area. His practice also serves as the team physicians for several school districts in the area.

One of the points that Dr. McDonald wanted to stress is that most athletes are not in a high-risk group for becoming seriously ill from the virus. They are generally young healthy individuals who if the were going to become infected would likely have only a mild illness. “The real issue with sports is that if they were to get it they are highly likely to spread it to family members. Their parents, grand parents and young siblings are at a much higher risk for severe disease which could potentially be life threatening.” 

The people at highest risk are those with heart and respiratory disease, and those who are immunocompromised. For the most part that will be elderly patients, but young patients especially those with asthma can be at a slightly higher risk because they have some compromised lung function to begin with. Dr. McDonald also mentioned that some sports might have a higher risk of infection based on the nature of the sport. “Everything that we are seeing right now is that it is spread predominately by droplets not aerosolization.” If you are playing against someone who is coughing or sneezing it can be transferred to equipment. They could be present on a baseball or soccer ball if a competitor is infected. Sports with close contact like football, basketball and wrestling can also put you at increased risk. Even lining up for the start of a race can have some risk if the competitor next to you coughs in your direction. Spectators are another issue.  The risk of an infected individual spreading it to those around them is “pretty significant,” according to McDonald. 

McDonald doesn’t believe that the winter tournaments will be completed. He cited the World Health Organization communication which states that from what they are observing to date they do not expect a significant enough lower virus activity to allow for the reduction of the social distancing that is currently recommended. “To restart athletics this year we would essentially need to have universal testing available.” 

Another unresolved issue involves when an exposed person will test positive for the virus. The incubation period is from two to fourteen days before symptoms appear. At what point during this incubation period will you test positive? Could an infected athlete have a negative test early in the period, but test positive a week later? McDonald believes that until you are sure that “every single person at the event does not have it and will not have it you can not restart spring sports. I don’t think we will be anywhere near where we have to be from a testing standpoint for months.” Due to the shortage of tests he cannot order a Covid-19 test without health department approval. The capacity is not in place yet to test everyone.

It doesn’t look like we will return to normal by April 6. If that’s the case the issue will become how long is the MHSAA and its member schools are willing to wait before pulling the plug totally on the season? Is it possible to run an abbreviated season? Is it possible to extend the season? These and other questions are undoubtedly being discussed. Until this is resolved everything is up in the air.

When it became obvious that the entire spring schedule was in doubt I contacted some of the senior athletes who will be most affected. Many of whom I have interviewed in the past. Everybody I contacted was very accommodating and once again made me proud of the young athletes in our county. All gave me thoughtful answers to questions that had to be troubling to think about. Below are some of the excerpts from our conversations. While having a panel type meeting with all of the athletes present at the same time would have made for a more lively discussion and more interesting reading all interviews were conducted over the phone.  

Our local high schools sponsor four sports in the spring. Gladwin and Beaverton have baseball, softball and track teams and Gladwin has a girl’s soccer team. Due to the speed with which this story moved I only had time to talk to Baseball and Softball players, but I’m sure the track and soccer athletes find themselves in similar situations. They all hope that the season will be allowed to start at some point, but understand the severity of the situation and the need for caution.

Both baseball and softball teams had started practicing last week, but were forced to cancel on Friday due to the MHSAA suspension of play. Grace Beardsley and Averie Bassage play softball. Beardsley is a shortstop and pitcher for Gladwin, and Bassage plays third base for Beaverton. Both said that softball was their favorite sport and that they would be disappointed if the entire season is called off. Beardsley said, “we are just playing it by ear now and waiting for the three weeks to be up. We know that it may end up being longer than three weeks.” Bassage mentioned that she has had a “great senior year so far” and hopes they are going to be able to play. 

While neither girl is angry about the suspension, both would be disappointed if the entire season were lost. “I have mixed feeling,” said Beardsley. “I have been waiting for four months for softball so I would be more frustrated than anything else if we don’t play.” Bassage added, “cancellation would put a real damper on my senior year right now I’m hoping that this blows over as quickly as possible and we can get back out there.”

I also had the opportunity to talk to several baseball players. Erik Seebeck from Gladwin along with David Krohn and Jarrett Inscho from Beaverton. All three players would be disappointed if the season is cancelled, but like the girls they understand it may be necessary. 

Inscho, a pitcher and third baseman said that baseball is his favorite sport. He has plans to continue his career in college at Mid Michigan. He is hoping that the MHSAA will take their time and not “jump to any conclusions.” He said, “I have been looking forward to this year since the end of last season.” After winning the Super Regional last year the Beavers should be one of the favorites in Division 3 this year. “I would be disappointed if the season was cancelled.”

Like Inscho, Krohn has had a great senior year. He was All State in football and a starter on the basketball team. He also feels good about this year’s team. “We are excited to get going, we take practice seriously because we know that we can go a long way again this year.” Krohn also likes the camaraderie of high school sports. “If we don’t play at all this year it would definitely be a disappointment just because its another chance to go out an be around my friends and another chance to win a lot of games. If we lost that it would definitely bum me out a lot.” Both Krohn and Inscho understand that this year’s team could be special and would be disappointed if they didn’t get the chance to prove it.

Seebeck is probably best known for his leg. He has been a standout defenseman on the soccer team and the place kicker for the football team. What is not as widely known is that he is also a very good baseball player. He actually mentioned that baseball is one of his “favorite sports.” Like Inscho, he is hoping that the MHSAA goes slow with their decision. He would be happy to get even a few games in. “It would be really disappointing,” to lose the season. ‘This is my senior year and last sport that we will get to play together. I have been playing with the guys since junior high so it definitely leaves you feeling a little disappointed and kind of worried about what may happen.”

Championship Athletic Events Scheduled for Detroit that have been cancelled

2020 NCAA National Collegiate Men’s and Women’s Fencing Championships

TCF Center

Detroit, MI

March 19-22

2020 USA Fencing North American Cup

TCF Center

Detroit, MI

March 20-23

2020 NAIA Men’s and Women’s Bowling National Championships

Five Star Lanes

Sterling Heights, MI

March 26-28

2020 USA Hockey Tier I 16U, 18U National Championship

Onyx Ice Arena

Rochester, MI

April 1-6

2020 USA Hockey Tier I 15 only National Championship

USA Hockey Arena

Plymouth, MI

April 1-7

2020 USA Hockey Tier II 16U National Championship

Troy Sports Center

Troy, MI

April 2-6

2020 NCAA Men’s Frozen Four

Little Caesars Arena

Detroit, MI

April 9 & 11

2020 NCAA National Collegiate Women’s Bowling Championships

Thunderbowl Lanes

Allen Park, MI

April 10-11

2020 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship

USA Hockey Arena

Plymouth/Ann Arbor, MI

April 16-26

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