“Once you saw that domino,” Coach Mike Robinson said, “you pretty much knew that we were next.”
An hour later, Robinson received the news from his athletic director: The Virginia state basketball finals set for two days later — featuring South County against Centreville in the Class 6 boys’ title game and Madison against Edison in the Class 6 girls’ final — were canceled.
As the anniversary of those canceled games approaches, memories of March 12, 2020, provide stark remnants of a different world. In the minds of the players and coaches involved, the paradoxes are endless: The news seemed inevitable and yet stunning; it feels like just yesterday and yet a lifetime ago; and the teams knew what they had to do, yet they were completely unprepared for the year ahead.
In hindsight, the stunning part of that March week in 2020 was how normally it began. The Virginia state semifinals played out in packed gyms on March 10. On March 11, at 12:50 p.m., the Virginia High School League sent a news release announcing that the finals “will proceed as planned.” That memo included tips for combating the spread of the coronavirus, using the now-unimaginable phrase “just as with other illnesses.”
Later that night, the NBA suspended its schedule, the first warning sign for the prep contenders. On one hand, it seemed implausible the high school season would stop with one game left. On the other, it seemed unimaginable the state would let 72 more hours pass without halting play.
On March 12, at 8:38 a.m., another news release came: The VHSL planned to hold the games but with only family members in attendance. Later that morning, the stance changed to prohibit any spectators. The worst-case scenario seemed imminent.
“We kind of expected it,” Speight says now.
“The vibe was just off,” Madison senior Amalia Makrigiorgos added. “We knew something was going to happen.”
Inside all four Northern Virginia programs set to play for a state championship two days later, word trickled to the players before it reached the coaches. Edison Coach Dianne Lewis was driving to pick up lunch. Madison Coach Kirsten Stone had been walking around school and had seen the baseball team scrimmaging in beautiful weather.
There were four team meetings that afternoon, four tearful conversations, four seasons brought to an end. At Madison, Stone recalls, “they were a mess.”
“It was the most helpless feeling,” Lewis said, “because I knew I couldn’t do anything about it.”
At 3:27 p.m., after Gov. Ralph Northam issued a state of emergency, the VHSL said it would be “inappropriate” to play the remaining games. The total statewide case count had reached 17.
Saying goodbye for a while
In Maryland, the state semifinals were set for that Thursday, March 12, and they met the same fate as the Virginia finals, except they were initially “postponed” rather than canceled.
In the early afternoon, the St. Charles boys’ team, which finished No. 6 in The Washington Post’s Top 20 at 26-1, was still preparing to play Atholton in the 3A semifinals. Students had assembled around noon for a pep rally to send off the team. The postponement came just before the pep rally started, so Coach Brett Campbell took his players into the library to give them the news. And then they joined the pep rally to build excitement for a game that would never happen.
“Everything was still so new — there was still the hope of, ‘Maybe we get a chance to play this,’ ” Campbell said.
Not until April did the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association officially cancel the semifinals, but nobody was surprised by that point. Campbell understood within a week that his team’s season was over.
Meanwhile, in Virginia, closure came more quickly.
“The hardest part about that was having a meeting after school to tell them, not only is the season ended, but you guys probably need to clean out your lockers as well because I don’t know when we’re going to be back in school,” Robinson said. “And watching them clean their lockers out hurt.”
South County and Centreville players joked about settling the championship on their own at Lifetime Fitness. Friends on the Madison and Edison teams texted about meeting on the outdoor courts at Nottoway Park in Vienna. That way the season could end for good.
But the talk fizzled. Some players had Division I basketball futures to consider, and the coaches wouldn’t entertain such a rebuke of the state guidelines. Everyone went home, and the 2020 state championship fell in a pile with everything else that went unresolved last year.
“I think that’ll be something the girls tell their children,” Stone said. “ ‘I remember when …’ ”
The ensuing year has changed the perception of that week. The teams involved were not victims of some unlikely misfortune but merely the first of many to be affected by a once-in-a-lifetime health crisis. Members of all four Northern Virginia programs remember thinking then they would be back in school within a few weeks.
The coming events put basketball in perspective. High schoolers went home for virtual learning and have not been back since. Basketball returned this year, only in Northern Virginia and only in masks with few or no spectators in the seats (the Centreville boys and Madison girls won state championships). The teams stopped shy of the pinnacle in 2020 never gathered together again.
Last March, they felt not only the sting of a curtailed season but the inability to weather it together, at least in person. Speight, Wilson and Walker were not just in Robinson’s office to watch basketball that day. “His office was a place we could go” for support, Speight said, and then it wasn’t.
“I think we move forward now by not taking things for granted,” Robinson said, “appreciating the small things.”