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Virus dashes dreams: Westwood girls basketball, Marquette hockey teams have state title hopes stopped in their tracks due to cancellations

with Westwood head coach Kurt Corcoran reacting on the sidelines at left, Ishpeming’s Emma Poirier, center, drives past the Patriots’ Tessa Leece toward the basket during the first quarter of a Mid-Peninsula Conference girls basketball game played at Westwood High School on Jan. 31. (Photo courtesy Cara Kamps)

ISHPEMING — Devastation is a strong word, but it’s the only one

that really can be used to describe the heartache for several area high school sports teams that had dreams of winning a state championship in the next few days or weeks.

Those dreams will have to remain just that, dreams, at least for the time being.

When the Michigan High School Athletic Association announced the indefinite suspension of all postseason tournaments on Thursday afternoon due to concerns about the coronavirus, several area teams were en route to or already at their respective tournament sites when they received the call to turn around and head home.

That call was particularly crushing for the Westwood varsity girls basketball team, which was on its way to Sault Ste. Marie to compete for its second consecutive regional championship against Charlevoix. The Patriots, sitting with a record of 22-2 and a realistic chance at a state title, were in Newberry for lunch and a midday shootaround when they heard the news.

It had already been a disappointing morning for Westwood after having to call off its three fan buses due to the MHSAA initially limiting spectators to 50 people per team. Those people were required to be immediate family or guardians of players.

Marquette’s Joe DeMattia skates with the puck during a game against Calumet on Feb. 11 at Lakeview Arena in Marquette. (Journal photo by Amy Grigas)

“That was disheartening,” Patriots head coach Kurt Corcoran said. “We went from having three full fan buses ready to come down with signs in hand, face paint and everything. We were going to have a heck of a crowd in Sault Ste. Marie.

“MHSAA outlined its policies and guidelines for spectators at 10 a.m. on Thursday morning. They announced we could have 50 spectators maximum, all family members. That was hard. We were just thinking about how we were going to play in front of nobody and it would be more of a scrimmage atmosphere.

“Once we got on the bus, those hard feelings kind of went away. We knew parents were still going to be there. They were going to bring the fatheads (posters), be loud and make up for our missing student section. It was still going to be fun; we were going to play for the regional title and move on.”

All of that changed in a matter of hours, with the MHSAA making the call to suspend tournament play just before 2:30 p.m. Thursday.

It was difficult news for Corcoran to tell his team, but in particular, his four seniors. The Patriots were reloading the bus in the Newberry High School parking lot when the crushing news rolled in.

“I got a phone call asking if we had heard the news yet, and I knew it wasn’t good,” he said. “They basically told us to turn the bus around and come home. We weren’t going to be playing a game.

“I knew that was a pivotal moment in my life. I obviously had to tell the team because we were either heading east or west. Telling those seniors that it was over was going to be a moment in their lives that they’d never forget. I just told them that it’s canceled, and it’s over. They pretty much collapsed into their seats. It was very emotional and a really empty feeling. It’s hard to describe.”

Westwood returned to the school with a police escort just after 5 p.m., greeted in the parking lot with overwhelming support from students, parents, teachers and supporters.

“It was very nice, but I don’t think the fans quite knew what they were in for, though,” Corcoran said. “There was this huge rally to make the girls feel better. The parking lot was filled with cars honking, people cheering and flashing their lights. They were holding the signs they made for the fan buses.

“As we slowly got off the bus crying, it was like a funeral. It hit everybody really hard. We entered the gym where there were more people, they all made a tunnel for us to walk through. There were sad tears, emotional tears, happy tears, it was a crazy mix of emotions.

“I always envisioned our pep rally at the gym to be celebrating a state championship. Not ‘The tournament was suspended and we’re really sorry for you.'”

Corcoran felt as if his team had the talent to go all the way.

“We believed for a really long time,” he said. “I know every coach is going to say this, but we were peaking. We were playing so well and everything was coming together. We had a gut feeling we were going to be at the Breslin.”

The Breslin Center on the campus of Michigan State University in East Lansing has hosted the state semifinals and finals for a number of years.

“I’m sure Charlevoix felt the same,” Corcoran said. “We’ll just never know, which makes it even harder.

“We would’ve rather played the game and lost by 40. It’s hard to come to terms with it; everything me and these girls and their families have sacrificed over the years for the greater good of this game.

“It’s just all stripped away and that’s hard. I get life is more than just sports, but that doesn’t seem to ease the pain right now. It’s going to take some time.”

For the Marquette Senior High School hockey team, the Redmen were already in the Detroit suburb of Plymouth, where the USA Hockey Arena is that was to host the MHSAA semifinals and finals for all three divisions.

MSHS sat with a record of 24-4 and was preparing to take on Bloomfield Hills Brother Rice in the Division 2 semis. Head coach Doug Garrow said earlier in the season that this year’s team had the ability to go even further than last year’s team, which made a run to the state semifinals.

Now they may never know if that statement was true.

“We found out at about 2:45 p.m. (Thursday),” Garrow said. “(MSHS) athletic director Alex Tiseo called and let me know that they had canceled or postponed it, whatever you want to say.

“We were getting ready at about 3 p.m. to leave and get a pregame meal. We were down in the hotel lobby and that’s when I told everybody. It was devastating with some of them being seniors, not knowing if it was their last game.”

The Redmen have seven seniors on the roster, to be exact. Instead of heading straight home, the team stayed the night in Plymouth and returned to Marquette late Friday afternoon.

“A lot of parents had driven down on Wednesday and some families came from out of town,” Garrow said. “We thought it was best to stay at the hotel together. We all hung out there and had a good night.

“The boys went to this fun park for a little team activity right around the time the game would’ve been going on. We all just hung out, bought pizzas and visited with one another before heading back (Friday) morning.”

Garrow added that morning skate ahead of the game had been the best his team looked in practice all year.

“We were sharp, we were ready and you could tell,” he said. “We felt very confident, not overconfident, but the boys were sure of themselves. We felt we had as good of a chance as anybody.

“The guys were confident we could win it all this year and that’s the most heartbreaking. We felt as a team that we could do it and I’m sure the other three schools in the semifinals felt the same.

“We’ll never know one way or the other. Were we good enough to do it? We just won’t know. We would’ve rather played the game and lost knowing that our season is over, rather than not being able to play at all. A lot of the guys would just want some finality to it.

“They’re all athletes used to winning and losing. Not being able to play the game is what’s heartbreaking.”

Other area teams impacted include the Marquette, Munising and Negaunee boys basketball teams. MSHS was slated to visit Traverse City Central on Friday night to compete for a Division 1 district championship, riding a 12-game winning streak and seeking redemption against the Trojans, who remain the Redmen’s most recent loss on Jan. 24.

Meanwhile, the Mustangs and Miners were set to square off at about the same time in a Division 3 district title game at Lakeview Memorial Gym in a showdown of 20-2 teams.

The MHSAA announced on Friday that all team activities for all sports seasons are to be suspended until April 5, falling in line with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s order for all schools to be closed for the next three weeks.

Team activities include practices, scrimmages, games, strength and conditioning activities, and any other organized sessions or activities.

Slim hope remains that postseason tournaments can resume down the road, but for now, teams are operating as if this is the end of the season.

“I suppose there’s a small sliver of hope that maybe the MHSAA will say ‘OK teams, you’ve got a week or two to practice, and then we’re resuming the tournament,'” Corcoran said. “That would be amazing, but it’s been such a rollercoaster of emotions that I don’t really want to keep my hopes up and have them crashing down again.

“Especially for the girls. I’ll be fine, I’ll coach again, but they’ve spent their whole lives preparing. I don’t know if they could handle that heartbreak again.

“I want to make it clear that I’m not mad at the MHSAA. I’m not mad for the decisions that are being made. I understand the gravity of the situation. I hope that the MHSAA can find a way to ease this pain, give these kids something, anything that they deserve.

“Whether it’s resuming the tournament or splitting the tournament up and finishing it somehow … I haven’t put enough thought into how they could make this right.

“I know their hands are tied. We’re trying to stop a pandemic.

“The girls earned this run that we were on. It’s such a hard lesson. I’ll always tell kids that life isn’t fair. Life is sometimes going to wind up and sock you in the gut.

“I want people to know that we’re facing a global pandemic. I understand Italy has been crippled by this virus. We’re trying to keep into perspective that we’re all healthy. This is a game. It’s just sports, but that doesn’t seem to take any of the pain away.”

Email Ryan Spitza at sports@miningjournal.net.

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