Local high school basketball teams wondered if the COVID-19 pandemic would erase another season. As for now, they have their chance to play.
EAST LANSING, Mich. – Nearly a year removed from seeing the end of their seasons cut short, Michigan high school basketball coaches, players and administrators began wondering if winter contact sports would ever start.
After the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services pushed the 2021 season back to Feb. 21, some student-athletes were left confused and frustrated.
"When I found out the first time our season was held back, I was disappointed, because I got my hopes up obviously," Skyy Lockhart, a Grand Ledge High School senior center, said. "I was really confused; I was like, ‘O.K., are we starting? Are we not?’ Then we were off…we finally got back in the gym – we were supposed to play, and then we never played.
“At that point, I was like, ‘O.K., this is the new thing – we act like we are going to play, and then we get held back’…that's how it was."
It was especially challenging for multiple seniors, Lockhart included, who have played basketball since elementary school and want nothing more than to be reunited with a sport they love.
Morgan Hetherington, a two-sport athlete and senior point guard at Grand Ledge, had her spring sport ripped away due to the coronavirus pandemic and was devastated when basketball received an additional postponement.
"That's the hardest part because I'm also a spring sport athlete, so last year, when my spring sport got canceled, I understood it a little more because COVID-19 was new,” Hetherington said. “…We see other states playing, and even though our rates aren't the highest, we still aren't playing. It makes me mad; it's my last season.
"I've been playing basketball since second grade, and I've been playing with the same group of girls, and we are always like 'our senior season' … We're going to go off, and it's going to be the best season … I'm not alone because all my friends that I've been playing with; they are seniors too and we're just sitting here like, 'What now?'…”
Heatherington continued, “It sucks, and it's really sad, because I've waited my whole life not just for my senior year, but my senior basketball season – it's supposed to be about the seniors, and now COVID has just taken over. It hasn't felt real at all. It hasn't felt like I've been playing basketball. It's draining."
While a definite risk for COVID transmission remains, the rewards are significant for the youth who continue to be hit hard by the pandemic. There is a mental health component, which is hard to ignore.
There are lessons to be learned through sports, including teamwork, discipline, focus, honor, selflessness, battling adversity, and winning and losing.
Without athletics, they feel like they lost a part of themselves.
"It's tough… I think everyone understood in the beginning, and we could rationalize a lot with these kids with the pause around Christmas and Thanksgiving,” said Kacee Reid, Lansing Catholic varsity girls coach. "It was all understood, but at this point, I feel like the last extension of the restrictions have really deflated our team. They show up every day; they work their tails off; they have a good attitude, but you can absolutely see that they've lost a little something … As a coach, it's tough to just continually tell them it's going to happen."
When Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced the return of four winter sports on Feb. 11 during a press conference, coaches and players rejoiced.
"It was almost too good to be true," said Travis Schellhammer, the Grand Ledge boys varsity coach. "These kids have been through so much … so many emotions and everything. So, to finally get that confirmation. I mean, everything gets leaked early, and kids are on Twitter and are seeing it, but to actually hear that come out of the governor's mouth – just Christmas morning, you know what I mean? I just kind of got goosebumps."
However, with games being postponed at the collegiate and professional levels, they realize now is not the time to relax – there is a lot of work to be done if these schools want to play all 18 games in six weeks.
There will be challenges.
Following COVID-19 protocols, monitoring their teams/players, and trusting their athletes to remain vigilant and safe when they exit the building are just a few.
Still, Reid, Schellhammer and Beth Perez, the Grand Ledge girls varsity coach, are up for it.
"It really doesn't change what we've been doing or what we've been saying as far as being smart; wearing the masks but also doing the things we need to do when we are not on the court," said Perez. "Keeping distance and following all those guidelines, trying to not just get a start, but make sure that we are able to see it through and actually finish this season too."