When senior All-State forward LJ Hazelwood and the rest of the Innovation boys basketball team were called out of class by the principal on Tuesday morning, the thought was that a big change was coming to the Ravens’ state tournament experience.
Hazelwood assumed that the CIAC had decided to play the remainder of its state tournament games without fans, a sacrifice he was more than willing to make for a chance to play for what would have been a second straight state title to close his high school career. But when Hazelwood and the rest of the team gathered and saw the look on head coach Matt Lance’s face, they knew the news was much more depressing.
“They told us the season was cancelled and right away it hits my friend Charlie [Lugo Jr.], and he just starts crying up in front,” Hazelwood said of the scene inside CREC Academy of Science and Innovation after CIAC executive director Glenn Lungarini announced that the remainder of state tournament competition across all winter sports had been cancelled due to coronavirus concerns. “It starts to hit me, but I'm just trying to listen and hear the reason. But then it really hit me for real. Since seventh grade I've walked on the court every season with the same group of people and to know that we go out because of this is devastating. I'm sitting there crying in the lecture hall, and usually I don't like to cry, but it's really emotional to know that you'll never wear that jersey again.”
Less than five miles from Innovation, the New Britain boys basketball team gathered after school with head coach Kurt Reis. The Hurricanes, who had just beaten Wilton Monday night in the first round of the Division I state tournament, had been brimming with confidence heading into a matchup with undefeated NFA in the second round, but that game would never materialize, as New Britain’s quest to reach the state final for the second straight season was cut short. According to Reis, the Hurricanes’ senior core “didn’t take it well at all.”
“Everybody was upset, down and depressed,” New Britain senior Tahmeen Dupree said. “We felt like we were going to make a run and we don't have the opportunity to do that now. It hurts a lot. We really had confidence that we were going to make something happen again, just like last year.”
The scenes within the Hardware City mirrored those in surrounding towns and the state as a whole. Six miles from New Britain High, the Southington boys basketball team learned the news on what was supposed to be the morning of its state tournament opener against Pomperaug. Instead, the Blue Knights’ season had ended a week before.
“It's unfortunate,” senior guard Jared Kelly said. “I don't know how to describe it. I think we were all confused at first, but we couldn't really do anything about it. We were all feeling down, but I guess they did it in hoping for the best for our health.”
Lungarini, in the CIAC’s unprecedented press conference on Tuesday, explained the difficulty of dealing with multiple school districts that were following different health guidelines amid COVID-19 concerns. On Monday night, New Britain capped attendance at 100 fans. Schools in Wallingford didn’t allow any fans inside. Some schools, according to Lungarini, had reached out to the CIAC and said they wouldn’t be able to compete at all. But the players who had just learned their season (and for some their careers) was over wanted to see any alternative measure taken before denying them a chance at a state championship.
“I understand that our health comes before anything else, and I genuinely respect that part,” Hazelwood said. “But I feel like they went from us being able to play the games and automatically just shutting us down. We worked so hard to just play basketball. It's true, we love our fans and we love those who support us, but we're playing basketball for each other. All we needed was the people on our benches. We don't need a crowd to play basketball. I feel like we could have tried that. It's better than just cancelling everything. Just pick a school where nothing is going on and you'll have nobody else coming in but officials, players and coaches. Just let us play.”
The collective sadness also gave way to anger. Dupree, who had played in front of a smaller crowd for the Hurricanes on Monday night, thought there were other factors at play other than concern for the health of student-athletes.
“I just think the whole situation is a lot of overreacting,” Dupree said. “Personally, I think it's a money thing and they're not worried about the kids. It's just about them and their money for the attendance at the games.”
Hundreds of students, coaches, parents and even athletic directors gathered outside of the CIAC’s offices in Cheshire on Wednesday morning to express their displeasure over the decision to end the winter season. Members of the Hall-Southington boys ice hockey team were there after seeing their Division II state tournament run end after a win over Staples in the first round, and even those who didn’t have a chance to show up offered their support, and were letting their voices be heard from afar.
“I think they're doing the right thing,” Hazelwood said of those that attended the rally. “That's my personal opinion. I get that health is the reason for all of this, but we're never going to be in high school ever again, and there's a lot of people that believed they were able to do something special one last time. They're just going to sit here and tell us we can't do it? Those people that went out there are showing how all of us feel because I feel the same way, that I should have been able to end my senior season in a special way.”
Following Wednesday’s rally, Lungarini voiced that barring “a significant change in direction and guidance from the Governor’s office and the State Department of Education,” the tournaments’ fates would not be reversed. The winter season is over, and local seniors feel they need more than just an emergency team meeting to come to terms with the fact that their high school careers are over.
“It definitely hurts,” Dupree said. “I was thinking how I had just said that [Monday] wasn't going to be my last game and now it really was my last.”
Ryan Chichester can be reached at (860) 801-5094 or firstname.lastname@example.org