Inside the shutdown: How sports in Southwest Virginia came to a halt

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It’s only been a week. But to many, it feels like years.

One week ago, the sports world came to a screeching halt due to concerns of the ongoing spread of coronavirus. On March 12, there were 1,625 active cases in the United States. As of March 19, that number grew to at least 11,810.

As leagues, tournaments and events were suspended, postponed or cancelled, everyone from athletes and coaches to reporters and fans slowly realized that sports would be absent from our everyday life for a long time.

Early warning signs

But the storm clouds began to gather on Wednesday night, when the NCAA decided that March Madness games would be held without fans and limited to families and essential personnel. The ACC followed suit, banning fans from attending the remainder of its men’s basketball tournament, which was in the quarterfinal stage on Thursday.

Arguably the loudest alarm sounded in Oklahoma City when a NBA game was scrapped between the Thunder and Utah Jazz. Moments before tip-off, a team doctor alerted officials of a positive coronavirus test from Jazz center Rudy Gobert. The NBA then decided to suspend its season.

If one professional sports league decided to halt competition, the question was whether other leagues and events would follow. The first domino had fallen.

Preparing for sports without fans

When Lord Botetourt head coach Renee Favaro woke up on Thursday morning, her girls’ basketball team was preparing to play in the state championship game the next day in Richmond. But whether fans would be in the stands or not became a question.

Earlier in the week, the Virginia High School League had already started taking steps to limit contact between players and officials. On Tuesday, the league recommended that pre- and post-game handshakes be avoided during that night’s state semifinal games held across the Commonwealth. Instead, officials and players greeted each other with fist bumps and elbow touches.

After the steps taken by the ACC and NCAA the previous night, it wasn’t a surprise when the VHSL sent an e-mail at 8:38 a.m. Thursday that spectators would not be allowed at Friday and Saturday’s state championship basketball games at the VCU Siegel Center. The crowd would be limited to players’ immediate families.

“When I came in this morning and I found out that we were only having parents, we said ‘This will be tough. It won’t be the same.’ But we’re getting to play,” Favaro said.

Favaro held a team meeting that morning to address the news regarding no fans.

“There were some tears this morning knowing that grandparents and things like that couldn’t be at the game,” Favaro said.

ACC cancels tournament

At around noon, just as the ACC quarterfinals were set to tip-off in Greensboro, other collegiate conferences, including the SEC, Big Ten and Big 12 had announced that their respective tournaments were canceled.

Then at 12:15 p.m., the ACC decided to call it quits as well.

“Following additional consultation with the league’s presidents and athletic directors, and in light of the continued conversations surrounding the fluidity of COVID-19, the Atlantic Coast Conference will immediately cancel the remainder of the 2020 ACC Tournament,” commissioner John Swofford said.

Minutes later, in a surreal moment on the court at Greensboro Coliseum, the league awarded Florida State with the ACC regular-season champion trophy. With the cancellation of the tournament, the Seminoles would earn the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

“It just feels a little surreal, like it’s not real,” one Florida State fan said. “There’s not that many people here. We’re expecting a large crowd and it’s now a handful of people. I hope it doesn’t change the morale of the players.”

One by one, other conferences followed suit. In New York, St. John’s and Creighton played an entire half of basketball in the Big East quarterfinals before organizers decided to scrap the remainder of its tournament as well.

In Radford, where the Big South women’s quarterfinals were set to be held that night, the conference made the decision at 1:20 p.m. to cancel the remaining rounds of the tournament. By then, the statements from each league had a similar tone.

“Given concerns related to the spread of the COVID-19 virus and the rapidly escalating developments nationally, the Big South Conference Executive Committee has made the difficult decision to cancel the remaining rounds of the Hercules Tires Big South Conference Women’s Basketball Championship. While we were hoping to protect these important opportunities for our women’s basketball student-athletes, we feel this is the prudent course at this time.”

Big South Conference Commissioner Kyle Kallander

In Richmond, state dreams fade as reality sets in

As news of the various cancellations in college basketball spread, Lord Botetourt senior Miette Veldman couldn’t help but wonder if the VHSL would be next.

“I had a suspicion,” Veldman said.

At 1:16 p.m., her suspicions became reality when the league made the decision to cancel Friday’s and Saturday’s contests. The finalists in each game would be declared co-champions.

“I was in class and I saw a tweet and it was just really sad,” Veldman recalled.

Favaro immediately called a team meeting.

“We walked in and there were already tears. They already knew,” Favaro said. “I was crying. They were crying.”

Meanwhile at the VCU Siegel Center in Richmond, the Auburn boys basketball team was just hours away from playing Mathews in the Class 1 championship game. The Eagles were seeking their first state title since 1967.

Fans were still allowed to watch Thursday’s games and the Eagles were in the stands, taking in the Class 2 title contest between Gate City and John Marshall.

Little did they know that the game, which John Marshall won 75-57, would be the last action on the hardwood at this year’s state tournament.

“We found out in the third quarter,” Auburn head coach Terry Millirons said. “It’s very disheartening for the guys when we found out about it.”

Junior forward Michael Royal was mad that the opportunity to compete in a state championship was robbed from him after making the trip from Riner, Va.

“I wanted to play in that atmosphere,” Royal said. “First time being there, I really wanted to go out there and get the full experience.”

March Madness becomes ‘March Sadness’

By 4 p.m., the sports world had been turned upside down. With conference tournaments canceled and professional leagues suspending play, fans wondered if the coronavirus would rob them of the one event March had become known for.

Then, less than 24 hours after announcing that the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments would go on without fans, NCAA president Mark Emmert announced the news that sent shock waves far beyond the hardwood.

The NCAA had not only canceled March Madness, but all remaining championship events for the academic year.

The Liberty men’s basketball team wouldn’t make a historic second consecutive appearance in the Big Dance. The Virginia men wouldn’t be able to defend their national title from a year before. The Virginia Tech women were denied of its first at-large bid in 14 years.

U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis wouldn’t be filled with wrestlers competing for a national championship at what would’ve been the largest venue to ever hold its season-ending event. Track and field athletes who were already in Albuquerque, New Mexico for the NCAA Indoor championships were sent home. And athletes in lacrosse, baseball, softball and tennis had to deal with the reality that their seasons were cut short.

A final practice and a celebration

Once the news settled in, the Lord Botetourt girls basketball team decided to have one more practice.

“I knew that I wouldn’t be able to come home today. I was like, let’s just all get together and just have fun for the last time,” Veldman said.

The final practice of the year ended with a short scrimmage. The team split into two, with seniors making up much of the side that scored 45 points in ten minutes.

“We really left it all out there,” Veldman joked. “I think we played well together and we really just showed out today.”

That night, the Auburn boys returned home as co-state champs, winning their first title in decades without even stepping onto the floor in Richmond.

Parents and friends welcomed the team bus home. After the sports world was told it had to avoid large gatherings, a rally was held inside the gym where players took turns cutting down the nets.

Sports halted as larger battle against virus takes center stage

In the days that followed, suspensions and postponements became full cancellations. Any hopes of taking the field in the next weeks and months were dashed as attention shifted to a larger battle against COVID-19.

A week later, the uproar regarding the cancellation of sporting seasons and events seems trivial. Fans, athletes and coaches realized that keeping others alive was a much bigger priority than the competition.

Still, the pain and disappointment remains. The efforts and hard work put in by athletes over a long period of time won’t be forgotten, even if the payoff from that effort was never realized. For some, the opportunity to compete for a championship is one they’ll never have again.

But sports will be back. And soon we can look forward to the cheers and the athleticism and the remarkable plays that define a game, a season and a career.

And we’ll look back at the day that the sports world came to a halt as one of the first battles against a pandemic.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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