By Andrew Johnson
The Fruitport senior, who has been a starter on the varsity squad every year of high school, expected that opportunity to finally arrive on March 13, when the Trojans were scheduled to play neighboring rival Spring Lake in a Division 2 district title game.
The game would have given the Trojans a chance to break a very, very long cold streak. Fruitport has not won a boys district basketball championship since 1938, so excitement was high at the school and in the community.
Then COVID-19 got in the way.
On Thursday March 12, the Trojans and other district finalists in the area were told that the title games would go on the next night, but with only a few tickets available to the public.
Later in the day, they learned that the games had been postponed indefinitely.
Now Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is expected to announce the cancellation of school for the remainder of the academic year, according to various reports.
If there is no school, there will be no basketball. That means the trophies that would have been presented to district champions may never find a home, and lots of hard-working young players will be left to wonder what might have been.
Conklin is definitely in that category, because his varsity career is suddenly over, without a proper ending.
“It was a good feeling, to be playing a district championship game against your school rival,” the senior told LocalSportsJournal.com. “We were all ready for it. We were confident too, after beating Whitehall and Oakridge (in the first round and semifinals). We were ready for the championship game.
“First we heard we could only have 50 fans from each side. So we thought we’d at least have family come. But then we had a meeting and were given the news that district finals were postponed. Now it’s all done, we couldn’t do anything about it. It hurts to not be able to play that game, especially a championship game.”
Fruitport is one of 11 area boys basketball teams who were one day away from playing in district championship games when the national health emergency brought the season to a halt.
The others were Muskegon, Grand Haven, Fremont, Spring Lake, Ludington, Kent City, Western Michigan Christian, Shelby, Muskegon Heights and Pentwater.
The girls basketball tournament was at the state quarterfinal phase when play was stopped, but every Muskegon area team had already been eliminated.
The pain of never knowing how the season might have ended was reserved for the boys teams that were still alive, and the pain of that lost opportunity is real.
“It was hard to tell everyone,” said Fruitport Coach Steve Erny, who led his team to a 12-10 record this season. “Right when I told them, the emotions were pretty difficult, and it was hard to express the frustration. At that time, the virus wasn’t as nationally covered, but now I think it was the right decision, because things keep getting worse.”
Conklin said Coach Erny worked hard to soften the blow for the players.
“Coach was always there for us,” he said. “When we found out, we had a team dinner afterward, and we just talked about playing together, how we came together as a family, and how we were successful this season. That can’t be taken away.”
Other teams were also bitterly disappointed. That certainly includes the Muskegon Big Reds, who were 18-2 this season and ranked eighth in the final Division 2 state poll.
The Big Reds were scheduled to play a hot Grand Haven squad in a Division 1 title game.
“It’s extremely disappointing,” said Muskegon head coach Keith Guy. “Titles are what we play for, and are what our program is built on. We were having success and playing some of our best basketball recently.”
Guy, who has won 16 straight district titles while coaching at Muskegon Heights and Muskegon, was excited to see how far his Big Reds could have gone in the state tournament.
“We got Billie Roberts healthy, and Vern Nash was hitting his stride,” Guy said about two of his key starters. “Jarvis Walker was playing better, and everybody who touched the floor, even in practice, was at a different level. You could sense it even on our bus rides. I felt like we had a chance to do something special.”
If this is the end of the Big Reds’ season, Guy has a message for all of his players, including nine seniors.
“I want to thank them from the bottom of my heart,” Guy said. “Life has certain things you can control, and other things that you can’t. This is one that you can’t, but the love and memories don’t stop. I want to thank them because they’re Big Reds in every sense of the word, and I’ve even learned from them how to handle certain situations.”
Kent City Coach Dave Ingles was meeting with his team on March 12 when the bad news came.
The Eagles had pulled off a stunning upset of previously undefeated Ravenna in the district semifinals, and were scheduled to play a good Western Michigan Christian team in the Friday title game.
Ingles knew how Ravenna must have felt after the upset loss. Two years ago, his Kent City squad was 20-0 in the regular season, but was upset in the first round of districts by North Muskegon.
Now the shoe was on the other foot, and Kent City hoped to be the underdog that stunned the field and won the trophy.
“It shocked people,” Ingles said about the upset of Ravenna, which improved Kent City’s record to 13-8. “But our locker room was pretty controlled. We expected to win. We felt like our regular season schedule had prepared us.”
Then came the news that the upset victory would probably be the Eagles’ last win of the season.
“Not much was said besides (Kent City athletic director Jason Vogel) explaining what was going on,” Ingles said. “But you could tell from the kids’ faces that it was kind of weird. You could see a lot of astonishment and confusion about what was going on. Nobody had ever talked before about anything like this.”
If the Eagles had played and won, they would have advanced to a Division 3 regional tournament on their home court.
“We were playing our best and felt confident about Friday,” Ingles said. “Then we would have hosted regionals. But it goes from that excitement to kind of an empty, incomplete feeling.”
All three coaches said they’ve done their best to check in with players most days, via group chat text messaging.
“I miss them,” Guy said about his players. “It’s tough on me because I can’t reach out and see my guys. I want to be able to see them and laugh with them. I can’t see their facial expressions, and the personal touch isn’t there, so it’s rough.”