Suddenly, the season is over for hundreds of stunned University of Wisconsin athletes.
And for several hundred hopeful Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association boys and girls basketball tournament participants.
Sports in general are on hold or in question across the U.S. as pro, college and high school leagues try to limit the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus.
The NCAA announced Thursday that it was canceling all of the remaining Division I championships for the season. The Big Ten Conference went further, completely ending competition for the 2019-20 school year for its schools, including UW.
At 11:15 p.m. Thursday, after the first four games of the three-day, 15-game WIAA state girls basketball tournament, the organization announced that it had canceled the rest of the state girls tournament and the boys tournament, which had reached the sectional finals level after 38 games were played on Thursday.
Early Thursday, the WIAA and UW-Madison said the state boys basketball tournament would be played at the Kohl Center in front of a limited number of spectators, but Thursday afternoon, the UW police department announced that the event would not be allowed to take place in the Kohl Center.
The organization’s executive leadership and Board of Control met late Thursday and decided to end the boys and girls seasons — marking the first time since the first WIAA tournament took place in 1916 that the tournament was not completed.
The early termination of the college athletics season was another jolt to the U.S. sports landscape in an unprecedented two-day period of cancellations and postponements. Major League Baseball, the NHL and Major League Soccer on Thursday joined the NBA in suspending play.
The decision to nix NCAA championships “is based on the evolving COVID-19 public health threat, our ability to ensure the events do not contribute to the spread of the pandemic, and the impracticality of hosting such events at any time during this academic year given ongoing decisions by other entities,” an NCAA statement read.
The Badgers men’s basketball team had been scheduled to play in the Big Ten tournament starting Friday, but the league canceled the final four days of that event just before games started Thursday.
The UW women’s hockey team was due to play Clarkson on Saturday in an NCAA quarterfinal game at LaBahn Arena. On Wednesday, that and all other NCAA events were directed to be played in front of only essential staff and a few family members.
On Thursday, the events were shut down, meaning the Badgers won’t get a chance to defend their title.
“You just feel horrible,” UW coach Mark Johnson said. “But sometimes you have to take a step back and look at the big picture. It’s not just us as a small, little group here that’s been affected. Everybody around the world has been affected. If you haven’t been affected, you will be shortly because this is going to impact your community or it’s going to impact something that you’re around.”
No Kohl for WIAA boys
The WIAA boys tournament, which has been held in Madison in all but one year since 1920, generates an estimated $6 million annually in direct spending, according to the Madison Area Sports Commission.
In announcing that the event won’t be at the Kohl Center, UW-Madison officials said they were acting in response to recommendations by public officials to limit large gatherings. The girls tournament allowed only 88 spectators per team into the Resch Center on Thursday.
“I want the student-athletes and their coaches to know that your school leaders, the WIAA Executive Staff, our committees and the Board of Control have done everything imaginable to try to provide and preserve these opportunities for you,” WIAA executive director Dave Anderson said in a news release sent by the WIAA at 11:15 p.m. Thursday. “However, we want and need to be responsible in helping the global and state efforts to stem the tide and spread of this virus.”
The release also read: “The WIAA regrets the lost opportunity for teams and players that have worked to achieve their goals and the communities that have supported them throughout the year.”
Tickets already purchased for tournament girls and boys games will be refunded in full. According to the WIAA release: “Please allow staff time to make these refunds and contact the WIAA office only if you do not see a refund to your account within two weeks of the tournament. Any tickets purchased at (a) school will be refunded by your school and not the Resch Center and the WIAA.”
The decision marks the first time since the boys tournament began in 1916 that a state tournament was not held. It’s also the first time since the girls tournament began in 1976 that it wasn’t concluded.
Coaches of Badgers teams said before Thursday’s bombshell decisions that they hadn’t received much information from athletic department administration on what was ahead.
Seven teams — men’s basketball, women’s hockey, men’s and women’s track and field, men’s and women’s tennis and women’s rowing — were scheduled to compete this weekend, six of them outside of Madison.
In coming weeks, the Badgers had athletes qualified for NCAA championships in wrestling and swimming and diving. UW also has spring sports in golf and a spring exhibition season for volleyball and soccer.
At the same time it directed playing and practice seasons to end, the Big Ten put all recruiting activities on indefinite hold.
UW athletes shocked
When they learned of the shutdown, Badgers track and field athletes were in Albuquerque, New Mexico, preparing for Friday’s opening of the NCAA indoor championships.
“Everyone’s in a bit of shock and everyone’s pretty disappointed and gutted about what’s going on,” said Badgers senior Olli Hoare, an NCAA champion in the 2018 outdoor season whose collegiate career came to an abrupt end Thursday. “But at the end of the day, we have to respect the decision that’s been made by the Big Ten Conference, by the university and by the NCAA.”
Hoare and the Badgers will fly back to Madison on Friday. Coach Mick Byrne said he was disappointed for his team’s seniors, Hoare, Alicia Monson and Zach Lorbeck.
“Their NCAA dreams ended today,” Byrne said.
The finality of things was “heartbreaking,” Badgers softball coach Yvette Healy said.
“We really live it,” she said. “It’s such a huge part of us. It’s not three months getting canceled. It’s the years that went into recruiting and growing and coaching the players.”
In a statement, UW athletic director Barry Alvarez said the school supported the Big Ten’s move to end the season.
“It goes without saying that our department is taking the COVID-19 situation very seriously,” Alvarez said. “The safety and well-being of our student-athletes, staff and fans is our highest priority.”
Major League Baseball on Thursday delayed Opening Day, scheduled for the Milwaukee Brewers to be March 26, by at least two weeks and suspended spring training games.
In pro golf, the PGA Tour decided Thursday night to scrap the rest of The Players Championship and shut down its other tournaments for the next three weeks.
The start of Forward Madison FC’s USL League One soccer schedule, set for March 28, will be delayed by at least two weeks.
The Madison Capitols’ junior hockey season has been put on hold by a suspension of all games, practices, workouts and meetings imposed by the United States Hockey League. Team President Andrew Joudrey said none of the Capitols players was sick, and the team is working with players’ parents on their plans for the shutdown period.
State Journal prep sports editor Art Kabelowsky contributed to this report.
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