Loretto girls basketball coach Ashley Rutledge has vivid memories of the day the games stopped.
Her Lady Mustangs defeated Oneida 58-33 in an afternoon Class A state quarterfinal on March 12. Hours later, the TSSAA high school basketball championships were postponed indefinitely by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. They were never rescheduled.
“When we got the news that night, it was very hard,” Rutledge said. “I know a lot of people think it’s just a sport. But to see those kids cry and be upset and know they’ve worked so hard… and then it was just taken away. It was a sad moment.”
More than nine months have passed since the 2019-20 basketball season came to a screeching halt. Coaches across Middle Tennessee are hoping for a better outcome this March, but with the virus still wreaking havoc across the country, that’s far from a guarantee.
“We’re all in this together, and that includes everybody,” TSSAA Executive Director Bernard Childress said. “Not just coaches and players, but fans, parents, everyone. We’ve all got to follow the guidelines or else we’re not going to be successful and (finish) our seasons.”
Most decisions left up to schools
High school basketball looks different around the Midstate right now. Canceled games, quarantined players and limited crowds have become the norm.
Most of Rutledge’s team has already been quarantined twice this season. Loretto spent the last two weeks practicing with just four varsity players.
“We’re always grateful when we’re out there and playing,” Rutledge said. “But it’s kind of as if we’re on pins and needles. (We never) know when we’ll get a call that our team is going to be under quarantine or that a game is going to be canceled because another team is under quarantine.”
Highlights of the TSSAA’s COVID-19 guidelines include temperature checks for everyone and masks for fans when social distancing is not possible, along with encouraging schools to reduce fan attendance.
Childress and the TSSAA Board of Control aren’t rushing to postpone or cancel winter sports seasons. Instead, they are leaving those decisions up to individual schools and school districts – just as they did for fall sports.
Public schools in Montgomery, Robertson and Wilson counties will not resume games until at least Jan. 4. Metro Nashville Public Schools paused all indoor extracurricular activities on Nov. 20 following a recommendation from the White House Coronavirus Task Force. Other schools have implemented strict capacity limits or backed out of holiday tournaments to limit potential virus exposure over winter break.
“Our (COVID-19) guidelines and regulations simply say, ‘Here’s the safest way that we know you can (play) right now,’” Childress said. “That’s the approach (the Board of Control) has taken, and they haven’t changed that stance.
“I’ve heard more than once that people are saying the Board is going to change that and shut down winter sports. We’re not at that point.”
Coaches working together
One positive that has emerged from the disjointed season is how coaches have worked together to adjust schedules on the fly.
Carl Miller and his White House Heritage boys team have played just five games over the first month of the season. The Patriots quarantined for two weeks after a player tested positive for COVID-19 in early December and won’t play again until January following further cancellations mandated by Robertson County Schools.
That has put their early-season schedule in a flux, but Miller said opposing coaches have been gracious about rescheduling district games to a later date.
“Everybody is working together for the sake of the kids,” Miller said. “That’s what you’re seeing now, and I think that’s what you’re going to continue to see.
“I’ve got eight seniors, and I want them to have a season. I want to have a season. We all do.”
Drew Maddux has been forced to shuffle teams in and out of CPA’s NXT LVL HoopsFest over the last few weeks. The tournament, slated for Dec. 28-30 in Nashville, usually includes numerous out-of-state teams, but this year’s field features locals like Beech, Brentwood Academy, Clarksville Academy, Ensworth, Ravenwood and Siegel.
And after CPA lost its opponent for this Saturday, Dec. 19, Maddux connected with Ensworth coach Ricky Bowers to quickly coordinate a replacement game.
“That’s been one of the beautiful aspects to come out of all of this: the collaboration,” Maddux said. “It’s about what is best for the student-athletes and how we can come together to do this for them.”
The path forward
All five TSSAA fall sports – golf, cross country, girls soccer, volleyball and football – finished their seasons and crowned champions amid the pandemic.
Basketball presents another challenge. It involves close indoor contact at a time when the state and country are struggling to control COVID-19. According to data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday, Dec. 18, Tennessee has averaged 135.6 new cases per 100,000 people over the last seven days – the most in the nation.
Even if the regular season can be completed, the state basketball tournaments may have to be played at new locations. Middle Tennessee State University normally holds the Division I championships, while Lipscomb University is set to host the Division II championships.
Childress acknowledged that neither school has given a firm answer on whether those venues will be available due to virus concerns. He said the TSSAA is exploring potential backup options, including other college arenas and large high school gymnasiums.
“We totally get their concerns,” Childress said. “But we just need to know and have asked them to let us know ahead of time if we can’t come to their facility to give us the opportunity to see if someone else will host us.”
While the TSSAA works on organizing the championships, the rest of the responsibility falls on individual coaches, players and their fans. Those who follow the guidelines know they have a better chance – though not a certain one – of playing games through the winter.
“We have to continue to do everything we can do to protect the integrity of the health and safety guidelines and make sure that we don’t have any slippage that occurs in that,” Maddux said. “We can’t grow tired or weary or take for granted any of the adjustments that need to be in place.”
Miller said he sees a path forward to completing the season, even if the circumstances aren’t ideal.
“We’re doing what we can to make it work,” Miller said. “As long as everybody does that, I think we can get through the season. It may not be exactly what we want, but it’s better than not having one at all.”
County-by-county basketball policies
Cheatham: Attendance limited to 25 percent capacity.
Davidson: All Metro Nashville Public Schools extracurricular activities are paused until further notice; attendance policies vary with private schools.
Dickson: Attendance limited to approximately one-third capacity.
Lawrence: Attendance limited to approximately one-third capacity.
Montgomery: All extracurricular activities are canceled or postponed until Jan. 4.
Robertson: All winter sporting events on hold until Jan. 4, but practices can continue. Attendance was limited to three tickets per player, coach and cheerleader.
Rutherford: Attendance limited to one-third capacity.
Sumner: Attendance limited to four tickets per participant.
Wilson: All winter sporting events on hold until Jan. 4, but practices can continue. Attendance was limited to 25 percent capacity.
Williamson: Attendance limited to four tickets per player, coach and cheerleader. Most teams don’t have games scheduled over winter break.