LINCOLN, Neb. (KNOP) - Nebraska is one of just 15 states in the country to fully complete their State basketball championships.
The NSAA hosted the State boys' basketball tournament in front of limited crowds this past weekend. (Credit: Patrick Johnstone/KNOP-TV)
Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi, New Mexico, South Carolina, Utah, and Washington all finished their State competitions, while other states had theirs shortened, postponed, or cancelled altogether. Nebraska, New Mexico, and Louisiana were the only states to hold their tournaments the weekend of Mar. 12, when concerns for the spread of coronavirus hit a high point across the country.
The Nebraska State Athletics Association, along with the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department, limited the number of fans who could attend the boys’ State tournament. The call was made Wednesday to limited attendees to just household family members of students and coaches. Some schools were already on their way to Lincoln when the news broke.
"We left Wednesday morning, 8:30 mountain time. We started getting word right away on the bus, and you know how teenagers are, it just spread social media wise so fast. They knew before I did,” said Ogallala head coach Andy Gillen. “It's just one of those things where we went back there and we reiterated that, hey that is completely out of our control, we're going to Lincoln, if they tell us to turn around we will, but just for now control what we can control."
Fans, coaches, and players did not know how to react to the news at first.
“I think at first we looked at it pretty frustrated. When the news first came out, we were driving down here. But, we started to see everything else that's happening around the world,” Scottsbluff head coach Scott Gullion said.
"I think everybody was a little shocked to begin with. Not truly upset, just scrambling to figure out who could they take, that was kind of a question at the beginning, who could get in,” said St. Pat’s fan Heather Lee. “People had hotels already so we were scrambling to see who was able to go, so people could cancel rooms and travel plans."
New updates were coming in rapidly, and people weren’t sure what to expect at any moment.
"You're just in a mode where things are changing hourly. You get an assurance that this is going to go and later they make another move,” said Alliance head coach Michael Baker.
Crowds were lighter than they typically are at State, as expected, with empty seats dotted across the Devaney Center and Pinnacle Bank Arena for semi-final and championship games.
“Surreal, the word that comes to my mind, it's like it's in a movie or a TV show,” Baker said.
The players and coaches also acknowledged that they were lucky to even have games to play.
"We're happy we got the opportunity to finish, but if they would have said no, we would have respected their decision," Gillen said.
“A lot of guys didn't even have the opportunity to plan their State tournament, we’re very thankful for that," Gullion said.
Two people who were especially grateful for the opportunity to play a few more games in their college careers were Ogallala seniors Carter Brown and Clayton Murphy.
"It was awesome,” Murphy said, “we saw all the cancellations and we were glad to see that they let us play, even without fans, that didn't matter. We just wanted to play, we were glad the NSAA gave us this opportunity."
"The chance we had to play, especially as a senior, the chance to play a high school basketball game three more times, is like anything you dream of. The opportunity we had to play in the state championship, it's what all of us have been dreaming about since we're six, seven years old. The fact that the NSAA allowed us, under some precautions, to be able to do that, at first it sucks, but when you look at it, it really means the world," Brown said.
All NSAA activities are currently suspended until the end of March, so it may be a while before there are any more high school sports in the state of Nebraska.