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Tournament cancellation leaves Dragons with no closure

Fairland Dragons’ boys head basketball coach Nathan Speed talks to his team during a timeout. The Dragons were in the Division 3 regional finals when the tournament was canceled due to the Coronavirus. (Kent Sanborn/Southern Ohio Sports Photos)

Jim Walker

PROCTORVILLE — There is no such thing as a consolation prize when it comes to the Ohio High School Athletic Association tournaments.
The state tournaments for boys’ and girls’ basketball, wrestling and ice hockey were all canceled recently due to schools being closed and the rules in place by the governor regarding the Coronavirus COVID-19.
That was a bitter blow for the teams or individual wrestlers still alive in the tournaments and trying to fulfill the dream of making the state tournament and even winning the title.
One team that feels the sting is the Fairland Dragons’ boys’ basketball team.
The No. 6-ranked Dragons had a 24-2 record and were set to play No.1-ranked Canal Winchester Harvest Prep in the Division 3 regional finals when the decision was made to postponed the tournaments and then the follow-up cancellation.
“There’s nothing where they can give you this or give you that. Players want to play, coaches want to coach. There’s not a substitute for that. There’s no closure and there never will be,” said Fairland head coach Nathan Speed.
“Usually when you end a season it’s on a loss. It takes a couple of weeks and you’re grouchy and then you get over it. You move on and you’re ready to start working on your summer stuff. With this, there’s no closure to it. You try to change that into motivation for next year, but you’re always going to say, ‘what if?’”
The 16 schools that qualified for the girls’ basketball state tournament and the four teams that qualified for the ice hockey state tournament will all receive state tournament programs.
The 672 student/athletes who qualified for the wrestling state tournament will also receive a program, certificate and their weigh-in card.
No state champions will be listed for the four winter sports. The OHSAA does not use state polls from the media or any of the coaches’ associations to determine state championships.
OHSAA Executive Director Jerry Snodgrass said, “We are already planning for ways that these student-athletes will be honored at next year’s state tournament.”
The four winter sports state tournaments and a few events during World War II (1941-45) are the only sports cancellations in the history of the OHSAA which was founded in 1907.
The Dragons beat West Lafayette Ridgewood on Thursday, March 12, and the finals were to be played on Saturday.
“Originally, they said we were coming back in three weeks. For now, for the next three weeks you can’t practice. No contact. In three weeks, we’ll come back and you’ll practice for a week and then you’ll play,” said Speed.
“They closed down school before they even canceled the tournament. It was toward the end of that three-week time frame. Everything happened so quick. You were told a day ahead of what they were going to do and then things just kept escalating. Even before we played the game we were talking about if we would even make it to Saturday.”
Even though Harvest Prep was favored to win and were led by senior guard Christopher Anthony who averaged 26.1 points and 5.1 assists, there is no guarantee Prep would have beaten the Dragons.
Harvest Prep only beat Zane Trace 56-48 in the regional semifinals. Zane Trace beat Ironton in two close games and Fairland also beat Ironton twice by larger margins.
“They were very athletic. Quick, long and liked to get up and down the floor. They had a point guard who would have been the best player we would have been up against the whole year. He was a legit D1 player. We would have had our hands full with him,” said Speed.
“But, if we could have done what we do well — control the tempo and played well defensively — we have a chance. We were playing our best basketball as the tournament came on. I felt like we played well defensively all year and offensively I felt we really picked it up in the tournament.”
Fairland had just one senior — Mason Manns — and will return the rest of the team including all five starters: Jacob Polcyn, Aiden Porter, Gavin Hunt, Clayton Thomas and Jordan Williams.
Although that gives those players and the rest of the roster another chance at the state tournament, there are no guarantees they will get to the state tournament or even the regionals.
“Fortunately for us, we get most of our team back. We have only one senior. I hate it for (Manns). He’s a guy who played four years, never in any trouble, never missed a practice, never misses anything. He just wants to help us get better,” said Speed.
“The only thing you hope for is that (the players) stay hungry and stay motivated. That’s going to be a different kind of motivation that should already be built into them starting next year. But anything can happen in one game in the tournament. To get to the state, you’ve got to be good and you’ve got to be a little bit lucky at times.”
The lead up to the cancelation of the season had its own bizarre moments. Tournament games on Thursday, March 12, were played with only parents and family members of the players in the stands. No other fans were permitted in the gyms or arenas.
Speed said it was almost warming up at practice but said the Fairland fans made themselves heard once the game began.
“At first you’re playing in the regional semifinals and there’s no crowd. The crowd we did have made them stand out even more. They were standing the whole time, cheering the whole time. Every person was behind our bench. It was definitely different but once you started the game if was like any other game,” said Speed.
The time period when games were on hold were strange as well because there was no school and the coaches were not allowed to meet with the players. Speed said he could only contact the players with text messages even after the tournament was finally canceled.
“The bad thing is I couldn’t even meet with them. I had to send out a group text. I couldn’t say, ‘meet me at the high school.’ It wasn’t a good way to end. I know a lot of kids work hard, but to get to that point you’re saying, ‘are you kidding me?’ You just shake your head,” said Speed.
“Everything that is going on, you don’t want to be unsympathetic to anyone who is sick or the situation. At first, you’re in shock, but the way things progress over the next three weeks, you’re thinking ‘I don’t think we’re going to get to play.’ I didn’t think we were. Then when they finally announce it, and finally say ‘you’re not going to,’ it hits you. You’re confused, upset, angry.”
The premature ending and circumstances surrounding the end of the season were just as unusual.
“Usually when you end a season it’s on a loss. It takes a couple of weeks and you’re grouchy and then you get over it,” said Speed.
“Then you move on and you’re ready to start working on your summer stuff. With this, there’s no closure to it. You try to change that into motivation for next year, but you’re always going to say, ‘what if?’”
And there’s no prize even if you can answer that question.