The Lost Year: Sports Shutdown and Comeback

Published: Feb. 11, 2021 at 6:28 PM EST
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. (WNDU) - If you love sports, March 11, 2020 is engrained in your mind.

Fans were banned from March Madness and the NBA went on an indefinite pause after Rudy Gobert tested positive.

That was just the beginning. The shockwaves rippled through all of sports.

Everything from youth leagues to high school and college to the pros was canceled within 48 hours.

But the sports world persevered.

High school teams and athletes rode the rollercoaster and did whatever it took to live out their dreams.

“It was a little discouraging at first,” Washington Panthers guard Mila Reynolds said.

“As a coach you can always say, ‘hey it can be taken away at any moment’” Culver Academies boys basketball head coach Mark Galloway said.

“This is why you can’t take things for granted,” Washington girls basketball head coach Steve Reynolds Jr. said.

“It was just really a matter of adjust weekly and sometimes daily,” Edwardsburg football head coach Kevin Bartz said.

Guiding a team through a pandemic isn’t in any playbooks.

The Indiana boys basketball tournament was heading into regionals when everything came to a standstill.

Culver Academies had won its sectional and was ready to continue fighting.

“My favorite team, my best team, maybe my favorite player on that team you know so that was tough,” Galloway said.

His favorite player was his son Trey, Culver’s all-time leading scorer. But all of a sudden the father-son duo had played their final game together without even knowing it.

“I told him, I said ‘even though it wasn’t a state championship, you still got to climb up on a ladder, cut down nets, take your jersey off for the last time and know that you did everything you could to try and win your last game,” Galloway said.

Just six days after regionals were postponed Hoosier Hysteria was officially called off.

“I was still hopeful that we would try to get something in even if it was late in the spring or in the summer,” Galloway said.

Girls in Indiana were more fortunate. Their tournament ended in late February before the shutdown.

But teams were already itching to start preparing for next season.

“My thought was you know we’re going to take a couple of weeks off and when the finals end we’re going to get right back in the gym,” Steve Reynolds said. “Ha didn’t happen like that.”

The Washington girls basketball team was on the rise but wasn’t able to practice until the early fall.

“Man if you’re not on the same page, it’s hard,” Steve Reynolds said. “You have to have that gym I think to land where you want to when fall rolls around.…That killed us.”

“We had a few transfers so we didn’t even know half of our team before the season started so we’ve bonded really mostly during the season,” Mila Reynolds said. “I would say which is pretty crazy.”

Once the Panthers got back to playing, there were adjustments from huddles during timeouts:

“I’m used to having people right in front of me,” Steve Reynolds said. “They’re everywhere. So now I’m talking loud and everybody can hear what I’m saying. And I’m like I don’t want the other team to hear me but I have to talk that loud.”

To smaller crowds.

“When one person got hype, the whole gym gets hyped and it was really loud,” Mila Reynolds said. “I kind of miss that. But I’ve been fortunate enough to even play and have somewhat of a crowd.”

It’s taken some getting used to for the Eagles too.

“Going to practice again it’s exciting opportunity for our kids to get to do that,” Galloway said.

Culver Academies has some of the strictest protocols in place . Winter athletes are tested twice a week. The team practices and competes wearing masks. They ask their opponents to also wear face coverings or take a rapid test. Because of that, CMA only played a handful of games this season.

“I want to keep kids safe and adults safe,” Galloway said. “But at the same time, basketball and sports are really, really important to kids. I also want to fight for the ability to get to practice and get to play games. I will continue to try and do that in the safest way possible.”

In Michigan, the journey back has been even more of a roller coaster.

“We got shut down three different times,” Edwardsburg head football coach Kevin Bartz said. “We finally finished the season in the middle of January in the snow. So I would say we’ve been in football season for six months and in football mode for about nine.”

A dizzying nine months. On August 14, Michigan football was moved to the spring. But then on September 3, fall football was back with games kicking off September 18. Players had to be masked while on the sidelines and in the game.

“The biggest problem with those is they kind restricted your vision in order to see things down by your feet so it made it a little bit dangerous doing that,” Bartz said. “But once again it was a regulation that we had to abide by in order to play.”

Still, sports were suspended again on November 15 right in the middle of fall playoffs. Teams finally got the green light to resume the “fall” on December 28.

“I don’t think anyone ever gave up,” Bartz said. “Was there a frustration level there? Daily... Being creative and keeping the kids excited about it and motivated that was the most difficult task.”

This time around players were tested three times a week before school taking a mental and emotional toll.

“They would sit there for their 10-15 minutes each day worried if they had COVID,” Bartz said. “We’d call them individually up and we’d let them know if they were staying the day or if they’re going home. So it was a terrible process. I understand it let us play but what a terrible way to do it for them though.”

The Eddies eventually lost in the state semifinals fighting hard until the end.

“If you’re going to go into a season to face adversity and you have to have all of these challenges that brought with COVID, I could not have had a better group of dedicated kids,” Bartz said.

But the challenge to get back on the field was not the only thing weighing on athletes’ minds around Michiana.

They also had to be thinking about their futures. Would some still get the chance to play in college?

“I was never worried that the recruiting process would stop,” Mila Reynolds said. “If a school really wanted me, they would find a way. And if I wanted them back, then I would find a way too.”

Washington Panthers star Mila Reynolds was in the middle of her recruiting process last spring getting attention across the Big Ten, including the University of Maryland.

“They were one of the schools that really stayed consistent,” Mila’s dad and coach Steve Reynolds said. “That time we’re going into COVID obviously. More and more Mila started to talk probably around May like, ‘I think this is it you know.’ Now mind you, we haven’t gone on a visit. We can’t get out, anything.”

Reynolds got the official offer from the Terps in the late spring. Then, it was decision time.

“We were ready to pull back if it felt like it was too much pressure,” Steve Reynolds said. “We weren’t really scared or anything but at the same time this is a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

“I love their coaches,” Mila Reynolds said. “We bonded right away. Maryland’s a top school obviously.”

She verbally committed in July.

Now Mila is enjoying the rest of her high school career, getting ready for regionals this weekend and has a different outlook on her game that many athletes share.

“It really has shown me to appreciate what we have now,” Mila Reynolds said. “Cause you never know when it could disappear. Or you don’t even have the chance to play it at a certain point in time.

Mila says she’s grateful she had a winter season in Indiana. Michigan winter sports were just given the green light to compete this week. Athletes are required to wear masks during practices and games unless they test negative on game day.

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