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Remembering the day COVID-19 stopped Ohio high school sports

Posted: 7:00 AM, Mar 08, 2021
Updated: 2021-03-11 10:00:34-05
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University of Dayton freshman guard Makira Cook has mostly turned the page on her high school basketball career.

After all, the former Mount Notre Dame High School standout has made significant contributions for the successful Dayton program.

But Cook still wonders what could've happened during the final weekend of her high school career in March 2020, nearly a year after the coronavirus outbreak disrupted life in Ohio.

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MND (28-0 in 2019-20) didn't have an opportunity to repeat as Division I state champions due to the eventual cancellation of the state tournament.

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University of Dayton freshman Makira Cook still thinks about how her Mount Notre Dame High School career ended abruptly after the coronavirus break caused the 2020 state tournament to cancel.

"Honestly, I sometimes think about how good we were," Cook said. "Everything was so special. We all just were so close. Looking back on the Snapchat Memories, like I said, we were just always laughing. We just had fun traveling on the road and being with each other."

Just an hour or two before the Cougars were to take a bus ride to St. John Arena in Columbus on March 12, 2020, the Ohio High School Athletic Association postponed the remaining winter tournaments due to the pandemic.

"For the couple weeks leading up to it we were just hoping to get through that weekend, knowing that we were getting close and something was going to happen, and unfortunately we didn't get there," MND athletic director Mark Schenkel said.

The annual state events in girls basketball, hockey and wrestling, along with regional boys basketball, showcase some of the finest student-athletes and teams around Ohio.

There were 672 state wrestling qualifiers from about 400 schools expected to compete at the Schottenstein Center, according to OHSAA wrestling administrator Tyler Brooks.

Instead, March 12, 2020, became synonymous with the day Ohio high school sports stopped.

"There is no way I will ever forget that day," said former OHSAA basketball administrator Kathleen Coughlin. "That was, professionally speaking, probably one of the worst days."

'This has never happened'

Jerry Snodgrass was alone in his OHSAA office with his doors closed when he received a phone call from Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine at 12:30 p.m.March 10, 2020.

It hadn't yet been two years since Snodgrass was named the OHSAAexecutive director. But this was one of the most consequential phone calls he had received since starting his education career in 1977.

"I'll never forget it as long as I live," Snodgrass said.

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Former OHSAA executive director Jerry Snodgrass remembers the pain of having to cancel the remaining winter tournaments due to the coronavirus outbreak in March 2020.

Dr. Amy Acton, at the time the Ohio Department of Health director, and state Superintendent of Schools Paolo DeMaria joined DeWine on the conference call.

Everyone was prepared to discuss the impact of the coronavirus outbreak.

"We talked some pleasantries for a minute," Snodgrass recalled. "The governor said then, 'I am recommending -- and I use that word importantly -- recommending that you continue with your tournaments but with only parents attending.'

"When I hung up from that call alone in my office, and again I'm still very emotional about it, I literally sat like this in my office -- buried my head in my hands for two, three minutes -- 'wow, wow, this has never happened,'" Snodgrass said.

Just a week earlier, DeWine had announced the annualArnold Sports Festival would have limited spectators and canceled other events associated with it due to the coronavirus outbreak.

"That's really when we realized that we're in the middle of something that's a tidal wave coming right at us," said OHSAA communications director Tim Stried.

As the OHSAA office began preparing to help the tournaments continue with health and safety measures, staffers worked long hours.

They evaluated spreadsheets and rosters. Greater coordination among membership services, communications and winter sports administrators became the priority.

Little did anyone know that less than 48 hours later, the remaining tournaments would be postponed indefinitely.

"I got the call from Ohio State University (March 12) saying we need to shut down," Snodgrass said. "And I drove faster than I've ever driven down to St. John. Parked right up next to the door, walked in -- probably walked a little faster than I should've. It probably was a little bit of a giveaway."

'A pit in your stomach'

Willie Doepker went numb while sitting in his Elder High School English class looking at Twitter.

The OHSAA announced at 1:15 p.m. March 12 that the remaining winter tournaments were postponed indefinitely.

"You just don't know what to think in that moment," Doepker said at the time.

Former Elder standout Willie Doepker was among the wrestlers who didn't have an opportunity to wrestle at the 2020 state tournament in Columbus due to the coronavirus outbreak.

The senior later cried with his teammates. Similar emotions spread throughout Ohio.

"Just to send a tweet like that is one where you kind of hold your breath for a second and get a pit in your stomach and have a feeling like you never want to have again," Stried said.

The Dayton Carroll and West Branch girls basketball teams left the St. John Arena court with 15:59 left in the pregame of the Division II state semifinal.

No other remaining winter tournaments were ever scheduled.

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The Dayton Carroll girls basketball team stretches in preparing to take on West Branch in a Division II state semifinal March 12, 2020 at St. John Arena. The teams had to leave the court less than two minutes later after the OHSAA postponed the tournament indefinitely due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Basketball tournament trophies, wrestling medals and information packets later sat unused in a spare room at the OHSAA.

"That's probably the rawest emotion I have is the sight of the trophies and medals and packets sitting in that room and thinking about all the unfulfilled dreams associated with those contests that never got to take place," Brooks said.

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Boxes filled with winter sports trophies and medals were stored in the OHSAA office in spring 2020. It was a reminder of the lost opportunities due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Two weeks later, the OHSAA canceled the four remaining tournaments.

Besides a few events during World War II, those tournaments are the only sports cancellations in the history of the OHSAA, which was founded in 1907.

Doepker understands history can't be changed, but he still misses wrestling. The Xavier University freshman served as a volunteer assistant coach for Elder this winter.

"I'm not just going to let something that I did for 12 years just go by like nothing happened, especially how it ended," Doepker said.

"So I think going back actually really helps me kind of get back into it and I guess finish it -- I don't know. I guess I will always give it back in coaching. It's kind of like a closure for me, I guess."