by Santino Torres / Staff Reporter
The Illinois High School Association (IHSA) cancelled the boys’ basketball state tournaments in all four classes as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a statement released by the IHSA, executive director Craig Anderson cited the need to “put the health and safety of all involved ahead of these events.” He also commended participants from the Class 1A and 2A state finalists who had just arrived in Peoria earlier in the day.
“They conducted themselves with the utmost class as we navigated this unprecedented situation together,” Anderson said.
The Class 3A Tournament was the first affected by the pandemic. There were still 17 teams in the hunt for the state championship. The stakes were getting higher with each passing game, and there were major storylines heading into sectionals for the schools participating.
On the far South Side of Chicago, there were huge expectations for the boys’ basketball program at Morgan Park. Ranked 18th in the nation by USA Today, the team was led by Division-I prospects Marcus Watson, Jr. (committed to Wake Forest) and Adam Miller (Illinois), a top 30 player in the country according to Rivals and ESPN. Head Coach Nick Irvin transformed a basketball program that had only one state championship in 1976 into an annual contender.
“When I first took the job, I knew it would be an uphill battle, turning the program around,” Irvin said. “I knew it would be a challenge at first to establish a program, learning as I go. It’s been a blessing for me to be at Morgan Park.”
This year’s team had an opportunity to seek revenge against Bogan, who had ended its quest for a third straight state championship last year by defeating them in the St. Laurence Sectional Championship. To get to that Super-Sectional match in Hoffman Estates, Irvin and his team would have to face Kankakee, who’s team featured a familiar face, head coach Chris Pickett — his cousin.
“Like I always tell him, it’s nothing personal. It’s all business,” Irvin said. “We both had that mindset of trying to beat each other.”
“We grew up together, so we know each other very very well,” Pickett said. “I actually come from the same conference that Morgan Park is in. We know that they’re the type of team that plays downhill. Our game plan was making sure that we were going to be as stout as possible defensively, to try to keep them from getting comfortable.”
Bogan was going to play in the Hinsdale South Sectional Championship, awaiting the winner between Benet Academy and the host school. After defeating competitive regional hosts Kenwood, Hinsdale South head coach Brett Moore was preparing for a team that valued possession of the ball with minimal turnovers to reflect that play.
“We had to go play at Kenwood in a packed gym,” Moore said. “People were projecting us to get beat by Kenwood or Hyde Park. It’s kind of the opposite world there. You go from Chicago Public League play to preparing for a team like Benet who plays a lot like us.”
Meanwhile, Benet head coach Gene Heidkamp was gearing up for a balanced team that had won 30 games this season.
“We knew we were playing a great Hinsdale South team, so we knew we have to play really well to beat them,” said Heidkamp. “They’re a very balanced team. They had 30 wins on the season. You don’t get 30 wins unless you’re really good. We knew it would be a challenge to beat them on their home floor.”
Then came March 11.
“On Wednesday night, I’m headed to the school and I get a message from somebody, ‘what happened to your game?’” said Coach Moore. “I called in, and they told me that we have this possible case, and the game’s going to be postponed until tomorrow.”
“It was a very difficult 24 hours,” Coach Heidkamp said. “We were supposed to play Wednesday. There was a report of somebody who had tested for coronavirus at Hinsdale South, so that caused the postponement. I found out before we got on the bus, right before we were getting ready to leave, between 5 and 5:30.”
The match between Hinsdale South and Benet was postponed for the next day due to a student at Hinsdale South testing for COVID-19 . Despite the match’s postponement, there were still teams who had to play in their first sectional matches.
Todd Blakeman is the head coach of the Glenwood boys’ basketball program in Chatham, Illinois, just south of Springfield. His team had defeated Carbondale 45-39 in the Mount Vernon Sectional for the right to play defending state champion East St. Louis.
“We were probably playing our best basketball of the year,” Blakeman said. “[East St. Louis] were really, really, big. Biggest concern was how we were going to score inside and how we were going to stop them. We had an idea of what we wanted to do on offense that we thought would give us a chance to compete.”
On the other side of the bracket, St. Ignatius, who hosted its own sectional, broke a school record with 24 wins this season. The team defeated Catholic League rival DePaul Prep with a game winning three-pointer for its first sectional win since 2000. In the sectional championship, head coach Matt Monroe and his team were looking forward to another Catholic League rival and the sectional’s top seed, Fenwick.
“We basically were preparing mostly on the defensive end, and how we were going to guard Trey Pettigrew and Bryce Hopkins,” said Monroe. “The first time we played them, we had a lot of success, so we wanted to double down a lot on some of those things that we did. “
All of these storylines were suddenly coming to an end. On Thursday, March 12, the decision came down from the IHSA that all of the basketball tournaments were going to be cancelled.
Coaches now had to process the timeline of events as they went from preparing their teams for their sectional championship matches to preparing to reconcile the abrupt end of the season with the health and safety precautions required for this situation in a matter of days.
“I’m a family guy, and coaching is one big fraternity. I’m always concerned about them, and I always pray for them,” said Coach Irvin. “I talked to Rob Smith, Tyrone Slaughter, Mike Oliver and Louis Adams. We talked to 90 players. We check on each other all the time.”
“We talk all the time, year-round, that our basketball program is bigger than basketball,” Coach Monroe added. “It’s about the experiences you share, the lessons you’ve learned, and the relationships you develop. That is exactly what we went back to when our season was cut short.”
Despite the cancellation of a Class 3A tournament that was likely going to be the most exciting tournament in the state, all 17 teams still alive in the hunt for the 3A state championship are able to say they finished their season with a win.
“I told our kids ‘Look at it this way. It’s tough to swallow, but at the same time, you ended your season with a win,’” Coach Blakeman said.
“Our opportunity to get to Peoria, we had a really, really good opportunity that we don’t know if it will come back,” Coach Pickett said. “It’s unfortunate. Like one of the kids said in school the following day, ‘At least we finished our season with a win. Not everybody gets the opportunity to say that.’”