As an athlete and a coach, I always looked forward to the biggest basketball games on our schedule, the ones that created the greatest anticipation and drew the largest crowds. Athletes are encouraged and expected to treat every game with the same passion and concentration but, truth be told, big games, with standing room only crowds, often bring out the best in competitors, and the atmosphere in those gymnasiums is often electric.
Until COVID-19 broke up the party last March, the Shawnee Indians boys basketball team had been electrifying a massive following that was growing larger each week with fans eager to jump on their band wagon. It wasn’t always that way. When Mark Triplett assumed the head coaching position at Shawnee, several years ago, seats at their games were not hard to find.
“My first year, our crowd was mostly the parents of players and cheerleaders and some students, we were an easy ticket,” Triplett says. An influx of talent and Triplett’s leadership sparked a greater following of the basketball program as Shawnee began piling up wins. “Four years ago, we went 18-8 and our crowds began to grow,” he says. “Last season, people were lined up a couple hours early before our athletic director’s office even opened up, at 7 a.m, to buy tickets for our games.”
Standing in line early won’t get you a ticket this season. Due to COVID-19, the OHSAA limited high school attendance to 15 % of a gymnasium’s seating capacity or a maximum of 300 spectators to begin the season and recently urged schools to begin following the recommendations of local health departments.
The result has been that basketball games this season are being played before very limited crowds, all wearing masks, creating an eerie feel to the game-time atmosphere. The sound of an enthusiastic crowd roaring its approval or disappointment, has been replaced by the squeak of shoes on the gym floorboards and the shouts of the coaches encouraging words or critiques echoing off the walls.
Coaches spend a lot of time preparing their athletes to be self-motivated, but the truth is, fans often bring a game to life and players can feed off the adrenaline produced by a passionate crowd. Even boos can motivate athletes. The power of a boisterous home crowd to disrupt a visiting player’s concentration during crunch time free throws is also missing this year.
What isn’t missing is the flame of competitiveness that athletes bring with them when it’s time to play. The sparse attendance has not dampened the spirit or the intensity of the games. I was a spectator at the recent Shawnee-Perry game, a contest that pitted two undefeated teams. Although the game was missing the roar of the crowd, it was not short on intensity as the athletes passionately battled at full tilt for four quarters. The Indians dispatched the Commodores with ease but don’t sleep on Perry. It will be a force in Division IV come tournament time.
When I asked Triplett if his team missed the enthusiasm and excitement their enormous following infused in them last season, he was quick to respond. “We know Shawnee Nation is here in spirit, even if most of them can’t attend our games,” he replied. And Shawnee has found plenty of motivation to finish the job it set its sights on last season before the rug was pulled out from under it.
In coach Tripett’s mind, last season never really ended. “There was no real closure for us last year,” he says. “We were all upset about how it ended, we weren’t even able to have a banquet,” he added. In a preseason meeting with his team this year, Triplett made it clear to his players that they would have to create their own energy and excitement and he made his point with just three simple words that have become their mantra. “Let us play,” Triplett says. “That’s all we want.” And do they ever.
Coming off back-to-back trips to the regionals, Shawnee returned the core of its team this year and has picked up right where it left off last season. The Indians ran off 25 straight wins last year and have won their first nine games this campaign to add to that total. They are stacked with veterans, a tremendous advantage in this COVID-19 impacted season. The Indians are deep, talented and unselfish and have manhandled their early opponents. But Shawnee will be challenged as it enters the back-end of its schedule, facing difficult tests in the always competitive WBL and also testing its mettle against Lima Senior, Findlay and Trotwood-Madison. The Indians are also attempting to re-schedule a postponed game with perennial power Dayton Dunbar. Their schedule is designed to prepare them for another deep tournament run.
Coach Triplett insists motivation won’t be a problem for his team. “It’s easy when you have thousands of fans screaming, but if we have to create our own excitement and energy, that’s what we will do,” he says.
The direction of the pandemic remains unclear and delays and postponements may still impact schedules. But one thing is certain, Shawnee is on a mission and it doesn’t matter if the Indians are playing in front of limited crowds, or even an empty gym. They, and every other team in the state, are motivated and focused on the same message coach Triplett has been preaching: “Let us play.”
Reach Bob Seggerson at email@example.com.