FARGO — Instead of preparing a pregame speech ahead of Friday’s semifinal, West Fargo Sheyenne head boys basketball coach Tom Kirchoffner had to figure out how to tell his team their season was suspended, and whether the Mustangs would play another game this year.
Sheyenne was slated to face Jamestown in the North Dakota Class A boys basketball semis Friday night, until about five hours beforehand, when the North Dakota High School Activities Association released a statement stating all winter and spring sports and activities would be suspended until further notice due to the coronavirus outbreak.
The Mustangs never made it to Scheels Center at the Sanford Health Athletic Complex. Instead, they met in the Sheyenne High School gym so Kirchoffner could inform them their season may be over.
“I told them that a lot of their grandparents come to the games, they’re super fans,” Kirchoffner said. “We wanted to tell them that maybe by canceling this, maybe that saves their grandparents. My dad is 73 years old, he sits on the bench. I thought about him this morning as well.”
The Mustangs woke up this morning with every intention of vying for a trip to Saturday’s state title game.
“It’s hard to process right now," Kirchoffner said. "Especially, we’re dealing with 16-, 17- and 18-year-old boys and girls that are pursuing their dreams and their goals, and all of a sudden they’re told it’s on hold right now."
When President Donald Trump declared a national state of emergency on Friday afternoon, the NDHSAA decided it was time to suspend the tournament.
“We’ve been working on it throughout the day and been in contact with the governor's office and the department of health, etc.,” NDHSAA Executive Director Matt Fetsch said. “With the national state of emergency now declared, we had to do it.”
The Mustangs didn’t know Thursday’s quarterfinal would be the team’s last guaranteed game.
“We knew at some point there was going to be the end of the season, just didn’t think it would come yesterday,” Kirchoffner said.
Paced by a strong group of seniors who helped break five school records this year, Kirchoffner had faith his team would be making a run in the state tournament.
“This was our year. It’s a very special group,” Kirchoffner said.
There’s still the possibility that the remaining winter tournaments could happen. The Class A boys and girls tournaments could pick up where they left off and the Class B boys tournament originally scheduled for next week could still happen. It depends on what happens with the outbreak.
“There is a chance they could continue, but it will come down to logistics and whether it is possible or not,” Fetsch said. "That would be worked out with the administrators of the teams remaining.
“We’ve been going hour to hour dealing with this and I guarantee it will be day-to-day moving forward to see where we are starting next week."
The Mustangs are holding out hope that their season isn’t over.
“Right now, it’s bigger than basketball,” Kirchoffner said. “Yes, we’d like to play, all the teams would like to play. But it’s bigger than basketball.”
When the suspension was announced Friday afternoon, friends, family and fans in the stands of the Class A girls basketball semifinal between Devils Lake and Davies knew the tournament wouldn’t continue. But the teams in the game did not.
The Firebirds were celebrating their victory and their shot to play for a state championship when they heard the bad news from an announcement over the public address system. The Firebirds came from behind to churn out a win in what was the last high school game in North Dakota for the foreseeable future.
As soon as Devils Lake head coach Justin Klein heard the news, he booked it straight to the locker room to call his school’s athletic director and figure out what they were going to do.
“I’ve got a locker room full of kids who want to play tomorrow who’ve just been told they’re not going to play,” Klein said. “So I’ve got to decide how I’m going to tell them. That was the hardest part. It’s gut-wrenching.”
In a matter of seconds, the Firebirds went from celebrating their victory to mourning the loss of their season. The seniors found out their high school careers were over, for now.
“It’s hard knowing that my high school career is coming to an end, but I’ve had a good run and I wouldn’t trade a minute of it,” Devils Lake senior Jes Mertens said.
The underclassmen also found out they may not get to play with their senior teammates again.
“It’s hard, we’re like family,” Firebirds junior Jailyn Martinson said. “We do everything together. She (Mertens) is my best friend, so being here without her next year is going to be hard, and knowing that we’re not going to be playing for a state championship, it’s hard.”
The Firebirds believed it could've been their year.
“I knew we had a good shot, and I kept telling the kids, ‘One game at a time,’” Klein said. “Going into (Thursday’s) game, I said, ‘There’s five teams left that have a shot to win this and we’re one of them.’ You keep approaching it that way and keep telling them that, that’s their goal. You’ve got some kids after last year that were very hungry for a state title.”
Devils Lake would’ve faced Fargo Shanley for the state title Saturday.
“It’s disappointing,” Shanley coach Steven Jacobson said. “These kids have worked so hard all year and then this happens. What are you going to do? You make it to a championship game that is not going to be played. You tell the girls, 'Great year, you guys got there. Two teams got there and you’re one of them.'"
With everything up in the air, Jacobson and Klein are left with an unsatisfying conclusion to their seasons.
“They earned the time to play in the game tomorrow, but this is just a part of life that we’re all having to learn to deal with,” Jacobson said.