It was a day unlike any other
Reaching the PIAA Championships – or states as they’re often called – in any sport is always special. Young athletes compete for medals that can give a lifetime of memories and for seniors, it’s a final exclamation point to their high school athletic careers. The venues are bigger, and the spotlight is brighter.
Kinney Natatorium on the campus of Bucknell University has been home to states for swimming and diving since 2005. The facility has enough room to host the swimmers, divers, coaches, officials and media that gather, and the school has run it enough times now that there are very few glitches. Sports completely take over the campus while the college students are on their spring break. The biggest glitch in recent years has been shifting media work rooms to different parts of the athletic complex to accommodate basketball playoff games for the highly successful women’s team at Bucknell. Imagine state swimming finals being held literally across a hallway from Patriot League basketball playoffs, but everybody has room to do what they need to do.
This year, a glitch came up that nobody could have planned for: COVID-19.
As writers and photographers gathered and reacquainted with each other on Wednesday, the first day of the four-day event, there were some discussions about being glad the event wasn’t canceled because of this thing people were calling the coronavirus. It was just starting to hit the United States, but social distancing hadn’t become a part of our language or lives just yet.
The first day went off without a hitch. The swimming preliminaries for Class 3A schools was held in the morning, 3A boys diving championships in the middle of the day and swimming finals and consolations Wednesday night. The highlight of the day came when Emmaus senior Brendan McCourt won his second straight gold medal in diving.
Thursday was the final day for 3A schools and 2A schools would put on their show Friday and Saturday.
Things started to shift Wednesday night. The NBA game between the Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder was first delayed, then postponed. It was later announced that Rudy Gobert of the Jazz had tested positive for the coronavirus. That was the talk around Bucknell on Thursday, but the news still seemed far away.
The preliminaries again got underway Thursday morning and when they were completed, the 3A girls diving competition started. Shortly after that, one of the reporters spoke with a PIAA official who said the 2A competition on Friday and Saturday was being postponed. We then all watched our Twitter feeds as the NBA, NHL and other entities put their seasons on hold because of the virus. The Patriot League canceled its basketball playoffs, shutting down the Bucknell womens team. Then came rumors that the 3A finals for Thursday night were being canceled.
I tracked down a local official of the PIAA, who confirmed that the rumors were true. He also confirmed that medals would be awarded based on where swimmers finished in that morning’s preliminary races.
At the same time, the PIAA also shut down the state basketball playoffs, which were in the quarterfinal round.
The 2A and 3A schools annually rotate which days they compete at Bucknell. One of the classifications goes on days one and two and the other on the final two days.
Had this occurred a year earlier, McCourt would still be waiting to see if he would get the opportunity to dive for a gold medal.
As the 3A diving competition finished, PIAA banners around the natatorium were being taken down even before the diving medals were awarded.
After a somewhat hasty medal ceremony, announcements came to start clearing the natatorium. It was an orderly but quick exit for both the 2A and 3A teams who were on campus.
The worst part was watching 3A students who had qualified for finals, but never got a chance to swim in their respective events lamenting the opportunity to potentially finish higher than they did in preliminaries. Those finishing in the top eight spots in preliminaries Thursday morning would receive medals, but instead of getting them during a medal ceremony in front of friends and family, they would get them in the mail.
The news was especially tough for seniors.
The PIAA board of directors held a teleconference Monday morning. It still hopes to hold the 2A swimming and diving competitions and resume the basketball playoffs at some point.
There are also concerns that the spring sports season could be wiped out, much like the NCAA has done with its spring season.
It was a day like none other covering sports. Of course, the whole situation has become one like none other and sports are just a small part of life that has been disrupted. Eventually, life will get back to normal, but for some senior student-athletes, the shot at that final moment of glory may never play out.