West Fargo Sheyenne head girls basketball coach Brent Hintz watched this first happen to the Mustangs boys basketball team in March, when high school sports were suspended in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic. Exactly 35 weeks later, Hintz saw his team’s season put on pause.
Amidst the worsening COVID-19 outbreak in North Dakota, Gov. Doug Burgum announced late Friday night that all winter high school sports would be suspended until Dec. 14. The suspension was one of several changes Burgum announced Friday.
Hintz was watching TV and had his phone on silent when the news broke. When he picked up his phone, it was flooded with messages and missed calls, mostly from fellow coaches, who were all looking for answers.
It wasn’t until about midnight that he heard his season wouldn’t start on time. It came as a surprise for Hintz.
“I think we're all aware of where things are at and what the numbers have been looking like and the trend that's been going on when it comes to the COVID-19 numbers and such,” Hintz said. “It’s definitely been in the news a lot and understandably so. But the timing of everything, I think, caught myself, along with a lot of other people, by surprise.”
With what happened last spring when high school sports came to a screeching halt in the middle of the Class A state basketball tournament, alterations to the winter sports season were always in the back of Hintz’s mind. But with fall sports pushing through and the postseason tournaments completed for all but one sport, which is slated for later this week, he had some confidence in his season starting on time.
“With fall sports persevering and doing a nice job of it and getting about a week away from the start of winter sports for basketball — hockey and wrestling were already going — we kind of felt like we were kicking off the winter sports season,” he said. "Where we started believing that things were going to get started and all that, and then all of a sudden, it was kind of like a bombshell a little bit.”
The last remaining championship for fall sports, the Class A and B state volleyball tournament, is allowed to continue as planned this Thursday through Saturday at the Fargodome.
Some of Hintz’s players are on the volleyball team and still competing. The Mustangs locked up the No. 3 seed from the East heading into the state tournament, and will play No. 2 West seed Jamestown at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Fargodome in the quarterfinals.
“I think it’s awesome they’re allowed to finish their season. They’re so close, and us in the basketball world know what it’s like to have the brakes just slammed right in the middle of the state tournament,” Hintz said. “But with that, it’s also creating a little bit more, perhaps, confusion, and a little more difficulty understanding just because you're kind of getting mixed signals or mixed messages there a little bit.”
Hintz and his coaching staff met with most of the kids at school on Sunday before the sports suspension went into effect (12:01 a.m. Monday, Nov. 16). The basketball season was originally scheduled to open practices Nov. 23, with the first contest slated for Dec. 4.
“We got together to have some conversations, open dialogue, to answer the questions we could answer,” Hintz said. “And also to let them talk a little bit, because I think so far through this, perhaps one of the kids’ frustrations is that they feel like maybe they don’t have a voice in this particular situation right now.
“Obviously their feelings were what a lot of peoples’ are — frustration, sadness, anger. Those are all real feelings that they're having right now and understandably so,” Hintz said. “They love their sports. They love what they do. It’s very important to them, and they’re trying to understand ‘Why now?’ ‘Why them?’ All questions you’d expect kids to ask.”
Hintz admitted it’s difficult to think through some of those answers and to find the right words to tell them, because the coaching staff is wondering a lot of the same things.
“I know a lot of people kind of see this as well, ‘It’s just a game, they’ll get over it’ type of thing,” he said. “But there’s so much more that goes into sports and activities than just the game part. There’s a lot they get out of it. For some kids, it can be their saviors. Right now, they’re just hurt and they’re trying to understand and figure out a way to stay positive and hope that in four weeks, we’re starting our season off.”
Hintz, who also teaches at Sheyenne, has the opportunity to see the wider impact on kids beyond the court.
“It isn’t just a game. It’s an avenue for us to teach kids life skills and teach them strengths they can carry for the rest of their lives,” he said. “As coaches, we understand that activities are co-curricular. They go along with the curriculum, they're an extension of the classroom. They provide lessons and opportunities for kids to build skills that they couldn't possibly build in the classroom.
“That’s the thing that concerns a lot of us well, is that it’s not just about playing those games, it’s those skills that kids are gonna miss out on here now for the next four weeks, and those are invaluable.”
In the meantime, those involved with winter athletics are still trying to figure out exactly what they can and can’t do during the four-week period. Once they know more of what the boundaries are specifically, Hintz said he’ll be in contact with his team on how they can stay ready for when the sport returns.
What they do know is there won’t be any open gyms during the four weeks, as the kids aren’t allowed in the gym in any capacity — one of the many school facilities that won’t be available during that time, including the weight room.
“I truly hope we’re back in the gym on Dec. 14 doing our thing because I know all the positive benefits that it has for those kids,” Hintz said. “We’re all going to have some scars through all this that we’ll carry with us the rest of our lives. We just want to limit the amount of scars that those kids have.”