At Unionville, head coach Chris Cowles wrapped up Thursday’s basketball practice with a pizza party normally associated with the end of the season. Over at West Chester East, the last workout in at least two weeks was altered as well, with a focus on having some fun.
The two teams would have been intensely preparing for a Friday showdown against one another in the state 5A quarterfinals. But it all changed when the PIAA announced that all of its winter championships were being suspended at least two weeks due to the global outbreak of COVID-19.
“I don’t know if it was a wrap-up meeting,” Cowles acknowledged. “We told the guys how proud of them we were and all that they’ve accomplished. But at the same time we could have a state quarterfinal game in three weeks. We just don’t know.”
At Villa Maria – who is the lone Chester County girls’ squad still alive – head coach Kathy McCartney had to face her team knowing that the news could mean that her seniors may have played at the high school level for the final time.
“We gathered the team together and told them,” she recalled. “The kids were shocked and disappointed. But we tried to stay focused on the idea that the health and well-being of the Villa Maria community is way more important than a basketball game.”
It’s all so very complicated. While everyone is coming to grips the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic, that doesn’t make it any easier to accept, especially for teenage student-athletes in the midst of a life-altering postseason run that is now in serious jeopardy.
“It was like a punch to the stomach,” Durant said. “But this is pretty big – it’s not fake news or being overly cautious. This is a pandemic.
“When you go to the store and can’t buy toilet paper, then you know something crazy is going on.”
In addition to a shared sense of profound sadness, the three coaches also agreed that the odds of playing anymore basketball this season is remote at best. But they are all holding on to that sliver of hope that exists until the PIAA – like the NCAA – pulls the plug for good.
“If I am being honest, it would be very low,” admitted Cowles, when asked the chances his 2019-20 Indians will play again.
“I think these kids see the writing on the wall. It’s tough,” Durant added.
“In all likelihood, I don’t see us returning to play,” McCartney agreed. “We will proceed like we will play again, but I’m not overly hopeful.”
Like any experienced coach, Cowles, Durant and McCarty have experience dealing with devastating, and often-time season-ending, losses. But this, of course, is different.
A year ago, Durant’s squad fell in the District 1 Final to a Sun Valley team it beat during the regular season. Cowles’s team dropped an overtime district heartbreaker to Holy Ghost Prep to end the 2018-19 campaign. And McCartney, who has been the head coach for the Hurricanes since in the mid-1980’s, has guided Villa Maria to five semifinal appearances and one state final berth. They all ended with difficult losses.
“I’ve experienced the losing,” she said. “That’s hard and everybody is sad, but there is finality to it – a closure to it. This is a different sadness.”
For Durant, it all reminds him of the impact when the 65 countries – including the United States – boycotted the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow in protest over the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.
“This is years of work for players and coaches trying to get better and preparing for a run at the state title,” he said. “In 1980, it was athletes that had been training their whole lives.
“This next month is going to be crazy for our country because we are so sports-driven. Now the only sports we will be seeing is in the backyard or on X-Box. It’s unbelievably sad.”
Cowles is taking a philosophical approach to the entire situation. He often tells his players not to worry about things they can’t control. Nowadays, he is reminding himself of that advice.
“These types of things happen once every century,” he pointed out. “You have to keep things in perspective. This type of thing has happened throughout history, and unfortunately it’s happening now.
“But having said that, I feel really bad for the players. We’ve worked all year towards this, and it’s not just us.”
The Indians are currently just three wins away from making it happen, but now that opportunity is on hold — maybe for a few weeks, but most likely on permanent hold. If that ultimately happens, there will always be thoughts of what could have been.
Previously unwilling to disclose the only goal his team established for themselves last fall, Cowles came clean on Friday.
“Our goal was to win the state championship,” he said. “And we’ve done everything we could have to achieve that goal.
“But we are kind of in limbo. We can’t even practice.”
Villa Maria is closed through next week for extensive cleaning and to limit social contact, which is followed by spring break. The Hurricanes have faced and overcome a lot of challenges this season, like losing senior star Paige Lauder for the season to an injury, and having to start the campaign with another standout, Morgan Warley, coming back from a senior knee injury.
“We are thrilled we got this far and very disappointed we might not find out how far we could have gone,” McCartney said.
“We are playing really well right now. Everybody endured our growing pains early in the season, and now to have it all coming together only to be told that it may all be over is rough.”
At West Chester East, there is the painful realization that the Vikings – led by generational 6-foot-10 senior Andrew Carr – had a legitimate shot at grabbing a state crown. East is currently 28-2 as well as the defending Ches-Mont and District 1 5A champions.
“It’s been a great ride,” Durant said. “We thought we had a really good shot at winning the state title. We really did.
“People say, ‘at least you ended on an exciting win.’”
It’s true, the Vikings advanced to the Elite Eight on Tuesday thanks to a three-point buzzer beater by senior Tym Richardson that propelled the team past Pottsville.
“It’s all surreal,” Durant said. “And it hasn’t hit home yet until they cancel. You can accept postponement.
“If the NCAA didn’t cancel its tournament, I’d be more hopeful. It started when the two NBA players tested positive and that drove everybody to do what they are doing. You could transmit it from player-to-player and then a player could give it to students or family.”
All three local squads are coming off exhilarating postseason wins. But that is hardly much consolation right now.
“I try to remain hopeful but there is a reality. If they say the season is over it would be a bitter pill to swallow,” Durant said.
“For high school athletes, for some of them, they will never play on a team again,” McCartney added. “And it’s hard to replicate that feeling of camaraderie and teamwork in other areas of your life.”