CHAMPAIGN — I remember attending the Class 2A boys’ basketball super-sectional game between Bismarck-Henning/Rossville-Alvin and Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin the night of March 10, 2020, on the University of Illinois-Springfield campus.
The term “COVID-19” absolutely had entered the mainstream news cycle by this point.
Basketball games just like this one would be canceled en masse before the week concluded.
But everything went on as planned that night. Fans of both programs packed The Recreation & Athletic Center.
No one in attendance likely realized it would be among the last live sporting events they’d take in for a lengthy period of time.
I certainly didn’t figure that was the case, even though BHRA and Urbana boys’ basketball teams losing in their respective postseason brackets on that night ended our IHSA winter sports season locally.
The next high school sporting event I covered in person was a girls’ golf invitational hosted by Blue Ridge at Farmer City’s Woodlawn Country Club. It took place Aug. 17, 2020.
For me, however, that wasn’t the beginning of the 2020-21 athletic season.
It feels like the 2019-2020 season never truly ended. Because it didn’t. Boys’ basketball state tournament games never transpired, and spring sports (besides indoor track and field) never even had the chance to kick off.
Then we spent months waiting for different announcements on decisions made by the IHSA.
Trying to make sense of Illinois Department of Public Health regulations and understand how they might apply to high school sports. Figuring out where we’d need to wear a mask and how many of us would be allowed at a location.
It’s been absolutely exhausting.
So Friday’s Class 2A competition in the Illinois Wrestling Coaches and Officials Association state tournament — fittingly, also in Springfield — does mark a firm conclusion to this school year for us at The News-Gazette sports department.
This school year’s athletic slate is finished. And we’re not wondering if high school sporting events will resume this coming August. Just when those first events will begin.
I’m proud of the work we put in over the last 15 or so months, from a prep-sports perspective. I cobbled together near-daily pages of content highlighting local schools’ spring sports — and especially the seniors within them — as we all came to grips with the loss of an entire season last spring.
Then, I did the same thing for fall sports athletes as we waited to see if their seasons would meet a similar fate during the summer months.
Thankfully, they didn’t. Things just looked a little weird — OK, really weird — without football, volleyball and boys’ soccer joining cross-country, golf, girls’ tennis and girls’ swimming and diving in August, September and October.
January brought about the IHSA announcement that paved the way for the school year’s remaining sports to take the spotlight.
It set up a daunting schedule, cramming as much into a 41/2-month timeframe as possible.
Somehow, the athletes, coaches, administrators and parents managed to persevere through it all. I know it was a challenge, for numerous reasons. I captured as much during interviews, talking with folks about their balancing of various duties and discussing the future while being uncertain about the present.
It wasn’t a perfect experience, especially early on. The IDPH’s COVID-19 safety protocols led to lost games. Basketball teams most frequently were hit, though others also bore the brunt of quarantines.
But some brightness appeared as football, volleyball and boys’ soccer got started in March. Fans slowly were allowed back into events, both outdoors and indoors. Student sections got loud again. Athletes didn’t feel like they were competing in an airtight vacuum.
By the time baseball, softball, girls’ soccer, track and field, boys’ tennis and wrestling rolled around in April, we were talking about reopening numerous parts of society instead of shutting them down. Masks gave way to vaccination.
I’m not sure exactly what the definition of “normal” is anymore, but the events I began attending in April, May and June started to feel more and more like my version of normal.
I can’t imagine what the May 20 softball game between Monticello and Bloomington Central Catholic in Piatt County would have felt like without fans. The game happened one day after Champaign police Officer Christopher Oberheim was killed in the line of duty. The entire afternoon was an outpouring of support for the Oberheim family, including Sages senior softball player Avery Oberheim, Mr. Oberheim’s daughter.
Those first signs of healing for the family and community wouldn’t have been possible a few months prior.
For me, the loosening of COVID-19 restrictions culminated with the state track and field events held earlier this month in Charleston. Seeing packed stands again might take a moment to get used to, but the roar that comes from the crowd is something that was severely missed.
If I weren’t so tired, I actually might be open to taking in a few state exhibitions. Letting spectators gather a handful of times to soak in what they missed for so many months. Allowing athletes to display their talents in-person instead of for a camera that beams the images to everyone in their homes.
Did this high school sports season have its down moments? Of course, as all prior ones did.
But just having the 2020-21 season — and getting to experience the seemingly endless positives that came from it — was sorely needed after how things played out last year.
Now here’s to a more typical IHSA schedule next school year.