By DOUG DONNELLY
Frustrations are boiling over for Michigan’s thousands of winter sports coaches, athletes and parents as the state seems to be holding steady on its plan to prohibit sports like basketball, wrestling and competitive cheerleading until late February.
Coaches and athletes say they just want to know why Gov. Whitmer and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services keep moving the goal posts.
“My frustration is for the kids, not for me,” said Hillsdale boys basketball coach Brad Felix. “I’ve had 30 years of coaching – these kids get one shot at this.”
Felix said the hardest part has been the cycle of getting athletes excited for the start of the season – practice typically begins in November for the high school basketball season – only to have it delayed, sometimes just hours before it was to start.
“We handed out our gear on (a) Thursday and the room was electric,” Felix said. “My players were amped to say the least. Then I had to break the news about the delay less than 24 hours later. You could hear a pin drop in the room.”
Social media has been abuzz in the past week with athletes posting photos of themselves, pledging to do their part by abiding by social distancing protocols and wearing masks and with coaches who are beyond frustrated with state officials. The MHDDS has re-stated several times that they are monitoring the numbers and feel the sports in question are a risk to schools and communities and plan to re-evaluate that decision near the end of February.
The decision has some downright angry.
Derek Siedl is the new boys’ basketball coach at Napoleon but has not been able to start his season. Basketball teams are allowed to have non-contact practices, where they can run drills and shoot, but can’t do anything that puts the athletes in close contact with one another.
“Man, it is tough to name the biggest frustration since there are so many,” Siedl said. “If I had to boil it down to one thing, I guess it would be the fact that it feels like high school sports are the one area that is not being allowed to operate. With restaurants reopening soon, we will essentially be the last thing left that is shut down.”
Chelsea basketball coach Josh Tropea has been outspoken about his feelings that the state is not looking at the data when making its decision. He called it a lack of transparency and consistency from the governor and health department.
“If it is not safe to return to play because of outbreaks that occurred in August and September, then why have they continued with temporary delays,” Tropea asked.
Ida athletic director and girls’ basketball coach Tim Leonard said the message to his team has been difficult.
“As a coach you ask players to make a commitment to the team,” Leonard said. “Sadly, we haven’t been able to make a commitment back that we will be able to have something for them. We ask them to work hard and improve every day without the opportunity to showcase what they have accomplished. As I coach, I feel I’m letting them down every time we delay.”
Athletes are just as upset.
“It sucks,” said Joe Francis, a junior at Adrian who started gaining steam last year around the state when he set a single game scoring record for the Maples. “I just want to play with my team. If they say we can have season, I’m ready to go.”
Francis feels by not having a season he is missing out on being recruited by college coaches. His coach, Jordan Kelly, said this is the time he should be showcasing his skills to coaches. Instead, he is joined by thousands of other Michigan athletes on the sidelines.
“I feel terribly for Joe and the others that are in his position,” Kelly said. “Colleges are missing out on seeing how much he has grown and improved. He hasn’t had a chance to showcase all of his hard work he has put in on his own time.”
Jocelynn Nicholls of Camden-Frontier is a three-sport athlete already committed to playing volleyball at Trine University in Angola, Indiana. She is not trying to get ready for basketball season to earn a scholarship offer. She is gearing up for it because she wants to compete with her friends and build memories.
“I try, but sometimes it’s hard to keep a positive mindset,” she said. “What’s the purpose of working so hard if we may not even play?”
Nicholls already has been named captain of the Redskins team this season, something she does not take lightly.
“Being a team captain is a huge role to take on,” she said. “That’s why I’m staying positive. I have played three years on the varsity. I’ve been there, done that, but the other girls have not. I tell them to keep going, to keep working. I have no idea right now if we are going to even play.”
The statewide effort to start the season Feb. 1 appears to be gaining momentum as superintendents, athletic conferences and parents are coming together from across the state to urge Gov. Whitmer and the state health officials to reconsider their position.
The same organization that held rallies and joined together in an emphatic way last fall in an effort to revive the high school football season has amped up its efforts in recent days. A rally is planned at the state capital Saturday and they also say lawyers are now involved in a potential lawsuit because, they say, student-athletes in Michigan are now being overlooked when it comes to scholarship opportunities because they have not been able to play.
“If this latest delay holds, I’m worried you will see a large exodus of the state’s top players go to prep schools,” Kelly said. “We have already seen some of that happening. For some of these kids, their future is on the line. They have hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarships that they aren’t getting offered because they aren’t playing.”
Whiteford junior Cole Giesige is among those slated to speak at Saturday’s rally.
Sen. Dale Zorn, R-Ida, introduced a Senate Resolution that urges the governor and MDHHS to lift the suspension on winter sports.
“This is about standing up for our student athletes and the positive physical and mental health benefits that participating in sports provides our children,” said Zorn. “Michigan schools and athletes have taken preventive steps to stay safe and worked hard to prepare for a shortened season — only to see their seasons delayed another 20 days with little evidence that they are major drivers in spreading COVID-19.”
The MHSAA, in fact, says they have plenty of data that shows, specifically, that student athletes are not behind outbreaks.
Last weekend the MHSAA concluded its remaining Fall tournaments with 11-Player Football Finals. Earlier this month, Girls Volleyball, Lower Peninsula Girls Swimming & Diving and 8-Player Football Finals were competed to conclude those seasons. All four were allowed to complete their seasons because those teams took part in the MDHHS rapid testing pilot program.
Results of that testing program showed a total of 5,376 individuals (athletes, coaches, team personnel, cheerleaders, etc.) were tested, and 57 – or 1 percent – tested positive at some point in the pilot. Nearly 30,000 rapid antigen tests were administered – and 99.8 percent were negative.
“We will continue asking questions and advocating for all of our schools and athletes as we work toward building our next plans for seasons in basketball, competitive cheer, ice hockey and wrestling,” MHSAA Executive Director Mary Uyl said.
On Wednesday, the MHSAA reaffirmed its commitment to have a winter sports season if government officials lift the present ban. MHSAA officials say they are concerned that athletes are heading to other states or converging together for non-high school sponsored sports.
“Each week, we see hundreds of examples of children and families competing in non-school competition, both in-state and out-of-state,” Uyl said. “This not only is in violation of current MDHHS orders but sending all of these families into different states will only become an impediment to getting students back in school full-time.”
That’s happening locally as well. Leonard said some of the players he expected to be playing basketball have moved on to club volleyball. Bedford boy’s basketball coach Jordan Bollin is worried that if basketball season keeps getting pushed, some of his players will turn to baseball.
“Bedford has and has always had a tremendous baseball program and after losing their entire season last year I’m sure the kids are chomping at the bit to play ball again,” Bollin said.
Surrounding states are playing, another fact that stings area coaches and athletes. Ohio schools started winter sports on time and continue to play. It’s less than 10 miles from Waldron High School to Fayette High School in Fayette, Ohio. Fayette will play its 13th varsity boys basketball game of the season Friday. Camden-Frontier hasn’t held an official practice. Fourteen miles away, North Central High School in Pioneer, Ohio, is about to tip off its 14th game.
Boys basketball in Ohio will be in its post-season state tournament before Michigan athletes will have had a full practice.
“I’d like to see the numbers,” Felix. “Our neighboring states are playing basketball. If we had data that suggested 40% or more of the games were being postponed or cancelled due to Covid complications, then I could better understand the governor’s stance on this. On the other hand, if basketball is proving to not be an issue with the spread of Covid, then we should be playing.”
It is less than five miles from Bedford High School to Whitmer, yet Whitmer will play its 11th boys basketball game of the year this weekend.
“Our guys have maintained an incredible attitude and optimism,” said Bollin, who is anxious to get started in his first season with the Mules. “We will continue to stay the course and prepare to play games, hopefully sooner than later. I cannot wait to fulfill my dream by coaching my alma mater.”
Pittsford Athletic Director Mike Burger senses the uneasiness among Wildcat athletes.
“The biggest thing as a coach is just seeing the disappointment in the eyes of the players, parents, and extended families,” said Burger, also the boys’ basketball coach at Pittsford. “We have all made sacrifices over the last year. We have done everything that we have been asked. Kids today are smart, and they know that most only get one go around at this. They know that Michigan and Hawaii are the few states not playing, and they want to know why … It’s just so disappointing.”
Dan Young, the executive director of the Basketball Coaches Association of Michigan, said in an interview that the coaches and athletes felt blindsided by the state’s announcement last week, which came as the MHSAA was starting its first day of state football finals.
“There was no new data to show why we changed from Feb. 1 to Feb. 24,” Young said. “We are at a breaking point. The kids are complying with orders. They are doing their part. They just want to play. … We are losing hope.”
Onsted coach Brad Maska said a Michigan season still has potential to be one of the most fun seasons ever for a high school basketball player.
“I told them when we are able to start it will be a players’ dream,” Maska said. “We will be playing a lot of games and not a lot of practices. Unfortunately for us we cannot control when we start, what we can control is our belief that we will have a season and what we need to do to prepare for that season when it does begin. … When we start it will be game, after games after game which will be fun.”