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High School Sports Pushed Out of Bounds By the Pandemic


The girls’ basketball team at Gruver High School in the Texas panhandle won its first state title in early March. A week later came the boys’ opportunity in this tiny agricultural community, where 400 acres of corn on the school farm finance college scholarships and sports provide a galvanizing sense of identity. Well-wishers parked along Broadway Street at dawn and waved as the Greyhounds’ team bus rolled toward San Antonio on a 10-hour trip to the state semifinals. Providing escort were police cruisers and fire trucks, their lights flashing, and a procession of semitrailers and galloping riders carrying flags on horseback.

Gruver was among four remaining teams in Class 2A, for schools with 105 to 229 students. Twenty-four teams in six classifications were scheduled to play for boys’ titles in the cavernous Alamodome during a three-day festival of basketball in a state that embraces high school sports perhaps more exuberantly and more extravagantly than any other.

The Class 2A teams practiced in the morning and early afternoon on March 12, then headed to lunch. Their semifinals were scheduled the next day. Some Gruver fans had already made the 570-mile trip to San Antonio. Others were on their way.

Then coaches and players received distressing news on their cellphones: The state tournament was being suspended until further notice because of growing concern over the coronavirus pandemic.

Similar disruptions of high school sports have occurred across the country and may have affected as many as three million participants, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. The cancellation, suspension or postponement of spring sports in all 50 states has shut down what would usually be a busy period of competition and championships in baseball, softball, track and field, lacrosse, golf and tennis.

For more than a month, the Texas basketball playoffs hung in limbo, teams not knowing whether the state tournament would continue. Schools closed. Stay-at-home rules left players trying to stay in shape with no access to gyms, tracks or weight rooms. Coaches were prohibited from holding in-person meetings or practices, so they communicated by email, text messages and video chats.

“Being in this limbo state is tough,” Brittin East, 33, Gruver’s coach, said in a telephone interview after play was suspended. He joked about his team’s fitness should the tournament resume: “You might see some bellies on these kids. It might look like a pick-up game between 30-year-olds, but we’ll do our best.”

Then came an announcement on April 17 that was both expected and dreaded. Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas ordered all public and private schools to remain closed through the rest of the academic year. Subsequently, the Texas high school athletic association, the University Interscholastic League, canceled the basketball tournament and shuttered all spring sports, saying that its “highest priority during this challenging time is ensuring the health and safety of our students and communities.”

“It’s heartbreaking,” said Carter Armes, 18, the Gruver point guard. “I didn’t know my last game was going to be my last game.”

Texas became the 30th state to cancel its basketball tournament. Kentucky, West Virginia and North Carolina followed suit, leaving only Maryland as a holdout as of Friday, according to the national high school federation. Sixteen state tournaments were completed. A Maryland official said schools remained closed until May 15 and that no decisions had been made regarding athletics.

As of Friday, 39 states and the District of Columbia had also canceled their spring sports, while the remaining 11 states had postponed or suspended their spring schedules, with some hoping to possibly resume, according to the national federation.

These had been heady times for sports at Gruver High, 90 miles north of Amarillo near the Oklahoma line.

The Greyhounds reached the football state championship game in 2018 and the boys’ basketball state championship game in 2019. Their best basketball player, Jalin Conyers, who is 6-foot-4, was also a tight end headed to play football at Oklahoma in the fall.

When the girls’ basketball team won the championship last month, the boys’ team huddled in the locker room before its regional final, listened to a radio broadcast of the game on a cellphone and erupted in celebration. Nine of Gruver’s 11 players were seniors. Three had sisters on the girls’ team, including Armes, the point guard, whose sibling, Camryn, was named Most Valuable Player of her state title game.

“I didn’t want that held against me the rest of my life, so I was going to try to do the same thing she did,” Armes said with a laugh.

In its semifinal matchup, Gruver was to face the team it lost to in the 2019 final, Shelbyville High from East Texas. The other side of the 2A bracket had Martin’s Mill High, the last undefeated team in the state at 39-0, set to play San Saba High, whose coach had advanced this far in the state tournament for the first time in his 30-year career.

No players on the four teams reported any sickness, coaches said. But as the state semifinals opened on March 12, cautious officials decided to limit attendance at the Alamodome. Sanitizing stations were to be set up throughout the arena. Locker rooms were to be sanitized regularly. And spectator seats were to be wiped down between sessions.

“I started looking in the bleachers and seeing people in hazmat gloves spraying every chair,” said Mark Kyle, 56, the San Saba coach. “That’s when I realized it was serious.”

Hours after the tournament opened, it was suspended. Gruver fans who were on the road turned around and went home, left to figure out how to get refunds on prepaid hotel rooms. The players stayed for a night in San Antonio and were treated to the consolation of dinner at a Brazilian steakhouse.

“Some kids ate about six pounds of steak,” said East, the Gruver coach. “It was good to get their minds off everything.”

But the remainder of the season was in doubt. The long bus ride home the next day was somber.

“We were all quiet, not knowing what to do,” Conyers, 18, said.

As schools closed, and group practices became prohibited, coaches and players improvised. Some watched video online and shot baskets in their driveways or at local parks. Conyers flipped tractor tires to maintain his strength. A few of his Gruver teammates rode bikes to keep their endurance.

Jake Bell, 30, the Martin’s Mill coach whose undefeated team relied heavily on running, suggested sprint drills and timed-mile runs for his players, along with plyometric exercises and shooting and ball handling drills. But these workouts did not mimic basketball played in a gym.

“It almost feels like a death in the family; there’s no closure,” Bell said before the tournament’s cancellation.

Finally, the hoops season deflated like a ball with a slow leak. For a star like Conyers, his athletic career would continue on the biggest college football stage. For many of his teammates, though, this was the end. At small schools like Gruver, Shelbyville, Martin’s Mill and San Saba, basketball players also fill out spring rosters for baseball, track and field, golf and tennis. Those sports were now halted, too.

Kyle, the San Saba coach, had sought for three decades to play for a state championship. Canceling the tournament, he said, “felt like a punch in the gut.” But, he added, it was necessary to be pragmatic and consider liability issues.

“If the N.B.A. says no and the N.C.A.A. says no and little schools in Texas say yes, and someone dies, it makes you look like you have no sense,” he said. “I like to think we have some sense.”

Kyle was both disappointed and somewhat relieved by the cancellation. An unexplained allergic reaction, he said, had left his wife with a compromised immune system. Had the tournament continued, he said, they had considered living separately to lower her risk of contracting Covid-19.

In Gruver, with no basketball to coach, East turned his full attention to teaching history online. Without the pressure of standardized tests, he and his students felt free to engage in “some cool research.”

The latest topic?

“Previous pandemics,” East said.


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