Raging virus pandemic has high school sports’ ‘world changed,’ local ADs say

The Catholic Central swimmers celebrate their CHSL championship plaque, but their hopes for bringing home a state championship trophy have been suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Mike Mousigian / Special for Detroit Catholic)

METRO DETROIT — At 11 o’clock on the morning of Thursday, March 12, Novi Detroit Catholic Central athletic director Aaron Babicz was wheeled into a hospital operating room for hip replacement.

In the back of his mind were two promises he intended to keep.

“I had told the boys I’d be there the next day for the hockey semifinal and on Saturday for the swimming finals. We had a chance to win both. The swimming championship would have been our first in history.

“When I woke up about 4 o’clock, the world had changed.”

A couple of hours earlier, the Michigan High School Athletic Association had suspended “immediately and indefinitely” the last four sports on the winter schedule — hockey, boys swim and dive, girls and boys basketball — all of whose state champions would have been determined in the next 16 days.

The MHSAA was following a recommendation by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to stop large gatherings in order to assist in preventing the spread of coronavirus. She ordered all schools closed at least through Sunday, April 5.

In a follow-up announcement the next day, the MHSAA expanded its decision to a suspension of activities “in all sports for all seasons,” including practices, scrimmages and competitions/games, strength training, conditioning and any other organized sessions and activities of in-season and out-of-season sports.

“It’s unfortunate,” Babicz said from behind his office desk.

That the MHSAA has suspended, but not cancelled, sports keeps a light of hope flickering, though faintly, that winter sports may resume and that spring sports — baseball, softball, golf, tennis, track, soccer and lacrosse — may proceed as scheduled.

“I think what’s important now,” Babicz said, “is for ADs and coaches to call the athletes, to keep in touch with them. I don’t mean through texting or whatever, but directly talk to them, check on their wellness, their mental attitude. I call it a mind, body and spirit check-up.” 

Along this line, Mike Watson, athletic director at Warren De La Salle, said the school psychologist is available to help kids deal with anxiety.

“Especially for seniors who might feel they’re at the end of their rope for playing high school sports,” he said. “For example, wait-and-see with basketball on hold is difficult for some kids.”

The Pilots were one of 10 CHSL basketball teams along with four girls basketball teams, three teams in hockey, and maybe a half-dozen teams in swimming still active in the post-season tournament when the MHSAA issued its suspension.

“We have to be patient,” Watson said. “We have to stay in contact with families and students. Social distance doesn’t mean social isolation. We have to care for each other.”

Steve Graf, athletic director at Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook Kingswood, sent greetings from Orange County, Calif.

He and his family are there for a March 28 wedding. The reception for 200 persons has been cancelled. The ceremony will be an intimate one with less than 10 persons attending.

“I did have time to go to the beach,” he said. “There weren’t that many people there that I couldn’t count: 33.”

About the situation back home, “I feel horrible for the kids, especially the seniors. It’s their last go-round.”

As is the case with other ADs, athletic facilities are locked down in accordance with the MHSAA edict to suspend athletic activities such as practicing or conditioning.

“We have security patrolling,” Graf said. “We want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.”

“We’ve had to kick out some kids,” Babicz said. “It may be too harsh, but we want to follow the rules of the suspension to the T.” 

If spring sports are cancelled, it will be a downer for the girl soccer players at Bloomfield Hills Marian and Royal Oak Shrine.

Both are defending state champs: Marian in Division 2, Shrine in Division 4.

Marian beat Grand Rapids Forest Hills Northern for its third state title in a row, 2-1, in overtime, its eighth crown since 2003.

Shrine had a sensational tournament run, outscoring six opponents, 28-1, which included five consecutive shutouts. The Knights blanked Kalamazoo Christian, 4-0, in the finale.

Goalie Allison LaPoint will be back between the pipes along with virtually the entire roster. Coach Mark Soma will be losing just three seniors.

Shrine athletic director Ben Kerfoot said coaches have handed out workouts athletes can do at home while at the same time limiting socializing.

Marian athletic director Dave Feldman said most athletes are self-driven. “They’ll keep active and in shape on their own.”

Catholic League director Vic Michaels said a clarification of the current status could come next week.

The MHSAA Executive Board, of which Michaels is secretary-treasurer, will meet in Lansing on Thursday, March 26, and the full 19-member Representative Council the next day. 

“I would expect some decisions to be made, whether cancellation or continue the suspension,” and added: “It doesn’t look good.”

On Monday, March 23, he will meet with the CHSL athletic directors to discuss options for the Student Athlete and Teacher Recognition Dinner scheduled for June 1 and the Hall of Fame Golf Outing and Banquet on June 8.

Babicz offered this perspective of the COVID-19 pandemic: “Maybe God is telling us to slow down, that we’ve forgotten a basic truth of life: Take care of one another.”

Contact Don Horkey at [email protected].