ANN ARBOR – When Leigh Ann Roehm and her team learned of the news that the pause on winter contact sports would be extended until late February, there was a feeling of déjà vu, but not in a good way.
The Saline girls basketball coach and the returning players from last year’s team remembered when the COVID-19 pandemic abruptly ended their season on March 11, 2020, one day before the team was set to play for the Division 1 regional title.
There was a fear that the extension of the pause could force another disappointing end to the season, this time before it even began.
But on Thursday, those concerns were quelled when Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced contact winter sports teams would be allowed to begin contact practices and competition on Monday, Feb. 8, ending a roller coaster wait that Saline and other teams throughout the state had ridden for months.
“It’s been a roller coaster, especially for the kids that were on the team last year,” Roehm told MLive during a phone interview Thursday. “It’s been a little bit of a different roller coaster for them because they experienced the season getting taking away when we were heading to the regional finals. And then we got to start our tryouts and that got taken away again (this year), I feel like, for those kids that had had that feeling the year before, it was super emotional because they felt like, ‘This is what happened last time and we didn’t come back.’”
This wasn’t the same situation, however, and now the Hornets will get a chance to attempt to finish what they started last season and make another run in the postseason.
“It’s a sense of euphoria that’s not the same but similar to when we won the district championship last year,” Roehm said. “I feel that excited. Just being able to feel like our season is going to happen, to know that these girls are going to get a chance to go compete after all the hard work and dedication that they put in, it’s super exciting.”
Sense of relief
There had been rumblings that an end to the pause was on the horizon, but Ann Arbor Huron boys basketball coach Waleed Samaha was still skeptical.
His skepticism turned to relief when the news broke Thursday afternoon.
“We’ve anticipated this news for so long, so it was great to actually get it,” Samaha said. “There have been so many delays that we just needed to hear it, so when the governor finally spoke those magic words, I think there was a sense of excitement and relief at the same time.”
Samaha, like many advocates throughout the state, used his voice to bring awareness to the situation in hopes that it would help give them an opportunity to play.
The long-time coach said he was grateful for the chance to have some semblance season after his team’s season was cut short last year ahead of the district title game.
“I’ve said all along that I don’t believe anyone was trying to single out winter sports or try to take anything away from the kids,” Samaha said. “I do believe they were trying to make the best decisions with the information that they had.
“I also think there was a point where the numbers started to come down and it looked like we were certainly heading in a direction where we could manage it and make it safe, and I think that’s where the frustration grew for coaches and players. We felt like it got to a point where we could do this safely and we kept being delayed and the frustration grew.
“I was really proud of all of the coaches and players across the state and all of the folks who got involved to make it a priority for our governor and the health department to look at the numbers and to give us a chance to prove that we could do it safely.”
Breaking down the return
Basketball and hockey will be allowed to resume contact practice and competition on Monday, with wrestling and competitive cheer beginning on Friday, Feb. 12.
All participants will be required to wear masks, though competitive cheer athletes will be allowed to perform without masks during competition.
Wrestlers, however, will have to undergo COVID-19 rapid testing the day of meets but will also be allowed to compete without masks.
All four sports were also given conclusion dates for their respective postseason tournaments with competitive cheer and hockey concluding Saturday, March 27, wrestling – both team and individual – finishing April 2-3, girls basketball ending April 9 and boys basketball concluding April 10.
While there may be some potential challenges that teams will might have to face moving forward, Ann Arbor Pioneer boys basketball coach Rich Marion said he’s optimistic about the season and is appreciative of the opportunity for all involved.
“Hopefully everything, in terms of the pandemic, stays in the direction that it’s in right now and we have a semblance of a season and we have our tournament,” he said. “These guys really have earned and deserve a senior season.
“I understand where the restrictions come from and everybody wants to start safely, but I’m just happy for these guys that they get to have some semblance of a season. And not just for these seniors, but for everybody.”
— to www.mlive.com