Despite limited crowds, postponements and some cancellations due to COVID-19, we just completed one of the most successful high school basketball seasons this area has ever witnessed. Four area teams advanced to state and Botkins brought home its first state championship trophy.
The athletes and coaches on those teams earned memories that will last their lifetimes. COVID-19 did it’s best to attempt to disrupt their seasons but was unable to prevent them from competing to the very end.
The same can’t be said for the seniors in the class of 2020 who had battled their way to regional play before the decision was made last March to cancel the remainder of the season, leaving them empty handed on the doorstep of their own dreams of making it to state.
Amazingly, four of the area teams that were denied an opportunity to reach state last year were not only back in the regionals, three of them (Shawnee, Ottawa-Glandorf and Columbus Grove) advanced to the final four and played at the University of Dayton Arena during the weekend. It was a remarkable display of resilience in the face overwhelming odds.
It had to be a bittersweet experience for last year’s seniors watching their teammates complete the dream they were so close to achieving themselves before the pandemic ended their high school basketball careers last March.
John Barker, the starting senior guard and catalyst for last year’s 25-0 Shawnee squad, remembers the moment the lights went out on their march to state. “I was in sixth period class and my mom sent me a text about the OHSAA decision to end the season,” he remembers. “As soon as the class was finished, I ran to coach (Mark) Triplett’s room and I could tell by the look in his eyes that it was true. No one can really understand how that felt and hurt.”
Shawnee’s run to state this season has given Barker and the other two graduating seniors a sense of redemption. “The team this year was awesome,” he says. “In the last moments of the regional championship game against Akron (Buchtel), I walked down towards our bench and coach Triplett and when our eyes met, I just started crying. But that game helped me put it all in perspective and gave me a sense of closure.” In an emotional scene, last year’s seniors were invited to help cut the nets down.
For Evan Hopkins, one of four seniors and a starter on last year’s undefeated Columbus Grove team that was also competing at the regional level, it was a similar experience. “I remember coach (Chris) Sautter called us to his classroom the last period of the day and told us the news,” Hopkins recalls. “It was heartbreaking. We were all in a kind of shock. It was hard to believe.”
Hopkins was at the regional championship game this year and remembers the tense closing moments of the Bulldogs’ thrilling win against New Bremen. “I knew coach Sautter had a plan for the last play but my hands were sweating. I was so proud of my guys finishing what should have been done last year. There were moments I thought ‘I should be out there,’ but it was a pandemic, there really wasn’t anything we could do about it.”
When the bus carrying the Columbus Grove team arrived back to the school parking lot after their defeat in the state championship game Sunday, the four 2020 seniors were there waiting for them.
Ben Westrick, one of seven Ottawa-Glandorf 2020 seniors, recalls how the Titans were peaking when they were hit with the news. “We were really rolling and not just thinking about winning the regional but winning state,” he says. “The whole team was called down to the gym at the end of the day and coach (Tyson) McLaughlin told us the season was suspended. We were all hoping it was temporary. It still kind of hurts to this day.”
Watching the Titans play this season helped Westrick through the process. “When I sat in the bleachers and watched them play this year, I felt like I was down there playing with them,” he says.
Westrick was sitting with several of last year’s seven seniors watching the regional final. When the game ended the group began to leave the gym. “We were all walking out when we heard the crowd roaring for us to come back and join the team on the floor. We got to be part of cutting down the nets. It was a cool moment,” he added.
All three of these players, along with their 2020 senior teammates, felt a special kinship with their former teams and teammates as they marched past the regionals and to the state tournament where they had the opportunity to continue their quest for a state championship.
Life moved on for all of the 2020 seniors. John Barker was in the playing rotation at Ohio Northern University this season and Westrick signed to play basketball at the University of Northwest Ohio but had his season cut short with an injury. Evan Hopkins is now a student at Ohio State University, majoring in finance.
The seniors on last year’s basketball squads were not the only athletes effected. The girl’s basketball teams and wrestlers were already at state, ready to compete, when their seasons were abruptly cancelled and spring sports like baseball, track and field and girl’s softball had their season called off while still in their starting blocks.
In an ironic twist of fate, I believe the chances are very real that the 2020 senior athletes, who lost their opportunities to compete, will be remembered for the ordeal they experienced long after other sport headlines have faded into history.
This is my final column for this season, my eleventh year putting thoughts to pen. Thanks to all the dedicated journalist at the Lima News who have helped me along the way and especially to you, our faithful readers. Stay safe friends.
Reach Bob Seggerson at firstname.lastname@example.org.