"You're about to call a state championship game."
"What?" I asked the person at Edgewood High School, as we both overlooked the court from the west end of the balcony in Wilke Gynasium. I had heard him, but implored for his reasoning behind the words.
"This is it. This is the state finals," they said, as they stood at the railing, looking over the court as the handful of Edgewood staff walked about, making the final prep for the game to be played about 75 minutes from that point.
I thought about it for a second, measuring my response. Then I said, "Well, then let's give it our all tonight and go out on top," before walking over to set up my radio broadcast on the other end of the balcony.
Thursday had already seemed like the longest day of the year. On the heels of the NBA canceling the remaining part of its season, as well as the Ivy League, and fan restrictions imposed on remaining college and high school tournament events, the day opened with a sense of wondering how much further the various sports associations would go in restricting large gatherings in the face of COVID-19. The day began with a series of announcements about government response to the pandemic, from national advisories to travel bans and quarantine zones to local emergency declarations and suggested limits placed on the number of people that could be in one area.
It was the college basketball tournaments that got the day started in terms of cancellations. In the span of about an hour, the Power-5 conferences all cancelled their remaining conference tournaments in men's basketball.
Word soon came that the MLB, NHL, and other professional sports organizations would be suspending their seasons. More college basketball conferences began shuttering their plans to put on their men's basketball conference tournaments. And by midday, we had nearly a full list of everything that was already off or would soon be off, while anticipating that the NCAA Tournaments in basketball would soon be next.
Thursday morning, the WIAA issued a release that stated fans would be limited to 88 per team for remaining basketball tournament series games. A press conference was also scheduled for 11:30 a.m. to announce the same thing. In the three hours between the initial announcement that the WIAA Tournament would still be played and the press conference, most of the college basketball tournaments had been called off, and other events were headed in the same direction. So, some expected the press conference to perhaps be an update to the original release and that the day's events would be called off.
After a lengthy wind-up, WIAA Executive Director Dave Anderson said that the games would continue as scheduled but with the announced restrictions on attendance. The WIAA State Girls Basketball Tournament would tip off 90 minutes later, and it was game on for Thursday after that point.
Only a couple of hours after that press conference, I looked up at my monitor in studio from time to time, watching league after league and event after event postpone, suspend, or cancel, but on TV, the state girl's basketball tournament continued on, inside a mostly-empty Resch Center, in light defiance of the news of the day. Every 20 minutes, I would chime in to our live ongoing news updates with, yep, the WIAA Tournament is still going on, as I gathered live video stream information for each game locally since the fan restrictions meant only 176 people would be in attendance at any one game. Most area athletic directors were extremely cooperative with me as they dealt with an unprecedented situation; one was texting me, asking me what the other sites were doing and if I had heard anything about the WIAA potentially cancelling Thursday night's boy's basketball sectional semifinals around the state.
The reality was that nothing was likely to stop the WIAA from holding its tournament events; at this stage, it was more about distributing information so people could watch or listen to the game. I began to print everything I needed for my own radio broadcast of the night (Monticello versus Randolph in Division 5), while keeping an eye on Twitter to make sure that the rug wouldn't be abruptly pulled from under the tournaments.
When the NCAA announcement came, it was still a few hours from tip-off of playoff hoops (except state girls basketball, already underway). The NCAA wiped out all sports championships for the rest of the academic year; the Big Ten and other conferences would then eliminate all competition in athletics through the summer. That's when attention turned to state high school associations, as one of the very few organizations left still trying to get games in. The WIAA, like several in the nation, opted to proceed with its events for the rest of Thursday. Not even the reveal that the Kohl Center would not be available for the state boys basketball championships prompted any cancellation of games. It was at that point I knew it was game on, and then drove out to Edgewood to call my game Thursday evening.
With the entire sports world on hold, and the actual world reacting in real time to the news of the spread of coronavirus, it seemed odd to me as I entered the commons at Edgewood that I was going to be setting up like I have done over 100 times this season to call a live broadcast. A fan walking in near me saw my radio gear and remarked, "This has been a pretty weird day!" To which I responded, "It has been a long year this week!"
Chris Zwettler, the athletic director at Edgewood, greeted me as I entered. "Jimmie!" he said, approaching me. "I guess we can't shake hands. Elbow-bump?"
After the exchange, he offered me as many game programs as I could carry (I took two) and sent me on up to the balcony to set up for the broadcast. A couple of people were up on the balcony already, closing down the weight room that overlooked the basketball court. One of the people saw me leaning on the railing and walked over to talk to me.
"You're about to call a state championship game," they said, noticing the radio gear I had in tow, still in the case.
A nearly-empty gym and the sense of finality seemed at odds with one another, but I nodded my head in agreement.
An hour later, the horn sounded, and warmups began on the floor.
The game itself matched up teams that had combined for 45 wins this year coming in; two conference champions with loads of length and scoring going toe-to-toe for the right to take on overwhelming Division 5 state title favorite Sheboygan Lutheran in a sectional final Saturday night at Fond du Lac.
Monticello was led by all-state junior Peter Gustafson, a lanky, athletic wing who excelled at cuts, drives, and a top-notch release on his shots that allowed him to score off the dribble as easily as off of a catch-and-shoot on an inbounds play. The heart of the Ponies was senior Reece Rufer, who in most games this year didn't come off the floor.
Rufer does not look like your typical basketball player. Built like a masonry foreman and as tough as a brick wall, Rufer displayed through much of the year some wonderfully underappreciated athletic gifts, such as impeccable footwork in the post that allowed him to challenge shots defensively and find easy looks offensively. Rufer also could shoot the basketball from anywhere in the gym, making a pair of threes in the game. One of my favorite players to cover on any team this season, period.
Randolph, who I was seeing for the first time, had three players tied for the team lead in scoring. The Rockets had length, speed, and as the game unfolded, a whole lot of strength and athleticism to boot.
The game itself went solidly in Randolph's favor. It seemed from the tip that it was the Rockets' game to lose; Randolph controlled the tempo and couldn't miss a shot at times. Despite a combined 38 points from Rufer and Gustafson, the Ponies had no counter for the myriad of ways that Randolph could get the basketball up and down the floor, scoring at will with 38 points in each half to win 76-54. The Rockets looked like a worthy challenger for Jacob Ognacevic, only the third player in state history to notch 1,000 points in a season in boy's basketball, and Sheboygan Lutheran on Saturday.
As I exited, one of the last few people out of the gym, Monticello's coach, Mark Olson, yelled up to me on the balcony, thanking me for the coverage. I thanked Olson for agreeing to do pregame interviews via teleconference and for sending me all of my pregame notes Thursday morning; with the unique situation Thursday night, we had made a point to limit contact at the venue, in regards to the health guidelines issued by Dane County.
On my drive to my wife's parents' house, where we were to set up for a likely-to-be-cancelled St. Patrick's Day parade, I thought about my broadcast, my call; I am a frequent critic of my own work, probably to a fault. In context, I did well; I mostly treated the game as it was any other, noting that the crowd was smaller and that at the moment everything was proceeding without incident. I also wondered out loud if the WIAA was going to scrap the tournament, although I knew for me my broadcast season was likely over in any event since I had zero belief that the WIAA would continue beyond the weekend.
As it turns out, the WIAA wouldn't continue beyond the night, as an announcement arrived in the hour before midnight:
With that, 16 remaining girls and 40 remaining boys basketball teams would be unable to play to the season's conclusion; 56 teams whose seasons would end with a victory, but no celebration of a championship, whether it be state or sectional. What happens with the 20 trophies issued at state and the 40 sectional plaques handed out Saturday across Wisconsin is unknown, but as of this writing, the most important thing is that everyone went home safely, without incident.
It's a moment in time we'll look back on. A sanguine burst of joy from the 42 winning teams Thursday night, in that they were one step closer to their dream of becoming a state champion, a dream that will go unrealized now that the high school sports season, like nearly everything else, has been ended.
For one night, it was playoff basketball, a coda to the season, and a chance for all involved to take in the magic of high school athletics one last time while we enter unprecedented times in the world. One last chance to experience the madness of March and to feel a sliver of normalcy amidst a rapidly-evolving global pandemic and response to it. For many fans of sports, the last moment of competition to enjoy before battling the real-world issues now affecting every one of us. Now, we will have time to reflect on the events of the past few days, and at some stage, past acceptance, begin to build anticipation for when high school sports return to our lives.
In the meantime, we stay safe, take care of ourselves and our loved ones, and emerge from this event more appreciative for the role high school athletics, and sports in general, plays in our lives.