A year after TSSAA basketball tournaments were canceled, coaches regret not crowning champion
Mitch Wilkins walked down a Murphy Center hallway at Middle Tennessee State in March 2020, celebrating with his Gibson County girls basketball team while thinking about his postgame speech.
The Lady Pioneers had just defeated Pickett County in the TSSAA Class A state quarterfinals.
He quickly learned something the rest of the state would later find out.
His game was the last high school basketball game played in Tennessee during the season. COVID-19 — the disease caused by the novel coronavirus — had forced Tennessee high school sports officials to postpone and later cancel the remainder of basketball season as well as spring sports.
"A lady from the TSSAA stopped me and told me, 'The games are being canceled at this point because of COVID,' " Wilkins said. "We were just shocked. We kind of knew what was going on, but I didn't anticipate anything at that point happening.
"So I get to go into the locker room and basically tell the girls great game, but your season is over. It was an unbelievable range of emotions."
Those emotions have subsided. High school sports have taken place in Tennessee. State championship trophies have been handed out in fall and winter sports, with six more coming with the Division I boys and girls basketball state championships set for the next two weeks.
A plan to play during the pandemic has been in place all school year thanks to months of gathering knowledge about COVID-19 and how it spreads. That plan includes temperature checks, social distancing and fans wearing masks
But games have played on.
"I feel like the tournament is going to get to go on," said Macon County girls basketball coach Larry White, whose team reached the Class AA semifinals in 2020 and was a favorite to win the championship before it was canceled. "We've got a lot of things in place.
"I'm not so sure we couldn't have played last year with just family members. I think we could have as we look back at it now. But (the TSSAA and medical experts) didn't know either."
The TSSAA first addressed COVID-19 a week prior to the girls basketball postponement before the 2020 Division II state tournament. At that time it was only monitoring the situation and gathering information.
Suddenly, the tournaments were over.
"Deep down, I thought in three weeks we'd come back and play and everything would be fine," White said. "We know that did not happen.
"I was one of the biggest skeptics in the world. I couldn't believe what they were telling us. My assistant's husband is a nurse practitioner and told me, 'Coach White, you need to understand something. I know it would be hard for you to understand this, but you could have one case in Macon County on the first of the month and at the end of the month you'd probably have 700 cases.' I just couldn't believe that, but it started happening."
White wasn't alone in questioning whether COVID-19 would stop sports.
Stone Memorial girls basketball coach Mike Buck said he has always taken precautions with his teams in the winter during flu and cold season. But even his players flashed a look to their coach when he was asked about the coronavirus in a press conference after his team's Class AAA quarterfinal win in 2020.
"We obviously knew some stuff was happening," Buck said. "We never dreamed that this would have the impact that it has."
The TSSAA's decision to shut down the state tournaments followed suit with college and professional leagues.
Coaches were not surprised about postponement
Upperman girls basketball coach Dana McWilliams was not surprised when the TSSAA stopped the tournaments. McWilliams and her husband Bobby, who coaches the Upperman boys team, saw the sports world shutting down in front of them, seeing the breaking news alerts.
"There were a lot of rumors and we thought it was going to happen," Dana McWilliams said. "We found out for sure while we were eating dinner as a team because my principal called me."
It was just the latest chapter of what was a crazy period for the Lady Bees. A tornado had ripped through Putnam County a week prior to the girls basketball tournament, destroying two of her players' homes and a member of the boys basketball team's home. Both teams overcame that to reach their respective state tournament.
And now COVID-19 was stopping their season.
"I remember going to our practice on Thursday and I told my assistants that we were going to practice and get ready for Friday's game, but I didn't see it happening," she said. "I didn't tell them because we didn't want to discourage the kids. But we knew it probably wasn't going to happen."
TSSAA's decision to stop basketball tournament
TSSAA executive director Bernard Childress typically watches as many state tournament basketball games as he can as a former coach who played basketball at Columbia Central and later Belmont. He doesn't remember seeing any of last season's girls tournament.
He was too busy on his phone talking to medical experts, TSSAA Board of Control members or MTSU administrators about COVID-19 and what the association should do with the tournament.
"I didn't even know who was playing, I was so focused on what we needed to do and if we were making the right decision," Childress said. "I was talking to people across the nation, getting on conference calls."
Childress said the decision to stop the tournament came after professional and college sports decided to not play.
"They said it was too dangerous to play," Childress said. "To me the deciding factor was when the NCAA said they were going to call off March Madness. That's when I said, 'Whoa, this is very, very serious. We don't need to have those kids in there.' "
Childress acknowledged the decision wasn't popular among fans. Prior to stopping the tournament, the TSSAA planned to allow only family members of the same household in the stands. No cheerleaders would be permitted to attend.
"Every time I came up and down the ramp from the hallway — and I was up and down a lot taking calls — fans were booing me," Childress said. "We had already made the announcement about only family members being there (in the semifinals and finals). They were booing about that."
Childress said he and his staff heard rumors about potential cases. There was a rumor about a kid in the hospital not feeling well on the first day of the tournament. He didn't know if it was true.
Childress said the TSSAA never heard of any fan or athlete getting COVID-19 after being at the state tournament.
But information from medical experts kept being updated. And other sports associations kept announcing they were stopping games.
"It was changing every hour," he said. "By the end of the day, I think everyone was saying, 'No it wasn't safe. You need to get these kids home."
There have been hiccups along the school year and during the high school basketball season.
Teams have had to quarantine because of COVID-19 cases on the team and when coaches or players were contact-traced. And a portion of the season was played just with fans from the same household in attendance.
But the season has not been shuttered statewide.
"My thing all along is it's all hindsight and it's 2020 — no pun intended," said Buck, the Stone Memorial coach. "We already had attendance restrictions. We were ready to come with parents only. Obviously, it's all hindsight.
"I wish they had said you've got 24 hours, go out and play and then everyone has to go home. We could have maybe went to high schools and played semifinals at 9:30 and 11 and then come back that night at 7 and play and there we have our state champions. It wouldn't have helped the boys, but we would have been able to finish the girls."
Reach Tom Kreager at 615-259-8089 or email@example.com and on Twitter @Kreager.