Coronavirus derails sports seasons for Class of 2020, but delivers perspective

Drehs details the inspirational seniors whose seasons were cut short (4:01)

ESPN writer Wayne Drehs goes in-depth on the seniors he talked to and how inspirational they are after having their seasons taken from them by the coronavirus pandemic. (4:01)

Thousands of high school athletes' sports careers prematurely came to an end because of the coronavirus outbreak.

They were on buses, in locker rooms, in class and even at work when the news came. They all knew it was a possibility but hoped, even prayed, it wouldn't happen. But just like that, with a phone call, text, tweet or a few words from their coach, they learned that their seasons had abruptly come to an end because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Along with the end came gnawing questions: What could have been? What now? But time has brought perspective. And in a world seemingly changing by the minute, a few extra days have brought acceptance, understanding and growth.

These are a handful of those stories, a glimpse into the Class of 2020 and a season none of them will ever forget.

'It will be one of the biggest what-ifs of my life'

BILLY DURKIN HAD no reason to believe his senior season at Hinsdale South (Illinois) High School would be all that different from senior seasons of the past. In the school's 55-year history, no Hinsdale South basketball team had ever won a sectional game, let alone a sectional or supersectional championship and a bid to the state tournament. The best record in school history was 21-8. And Durkin's senior-year squad was largely the same as the group that finished 14-16 his junior year.

"I guess I thought we'd be OK," Durkin said. "I never expected this."

This would become a 30-3 season. A conference title. And earning the right to host a sectional, with realistic dreams of a trip to the state tournament. "We have a team full of guys who care about each other," Durkin said. "I love these guys to death. On any given night, we had five guys who could score 20. The next night they might score four. And nobody cared. It was a special season."

One of those guys was Durkin's younger brother Bobby, a sophomore who also started for the Hornets. But on the night of Thursday, March 12, as the Durkin brothers and the rest of the players stretched in preparation for their sectional semifinal against Benet Academy, Hornets coach Brett Moore gathered his players.

"There is no easy way to explain this," Moore began.

Everyone knew. The game had been canceled. The season was over. Durkin said most of the players froze for a good 30 seconds. Then the tears began. The anger. And the disappointment.

"A sinking feeling in my chest," Durkin said. "I couldn't process that this was how it's really ending. But then you realize how lucky we were that the virus didn't come in November, that we were able to play these 33 games and break the record, have this amazing season. You try to find some positivity."

Later that night, before he left school, Durkin asked Coach Moore if it would be OK if he went into the gym for a few minutes by himself. He walked to center court, took a seat and let the memories flow through him. His first start sophomore year. The countless jump balls. Playing alongside his brother. The gym rocking with fans this year. The lifelong friends he had made.

A livestream scheduled to broadcast the game captured the image of Durkin sitting alone at center court. Moore screen-grabbed the image and shared it on social media. The image went viral, a heartbreaking visual of what high school seniors all over the country were feeling.

Since the image posted, Durkin said he has received more than 1,000 messages and texts -- many from strangers -- thanking him and his teammates for a season they will never forget. Finishing his high school career 24 points shy of 1,000, he plans to play college basketball at Lewis University next season.

"As an athlete, you sign up for the heartbreak of losing -- that there was a team that was better than you on that night," Durkin said. "But to never know, to never have that ending, it will be one of the biggest what-ifs of my life. I'll always wonder what would have happened.

"But I will get to play again. I think about so many of my teammates -- this was their last chance."

'This is what it comes down to?'

FOUR YEARS AGO, when Jenni Holbrook took the job as coach of the girls' basketball team at Jones High School in Oklahoma, she gave her team a simple goal: Make the wall.

"The wall" sits at the north end of the Longhorns' gymnasium, up above the basketball hoop, where nearly 30 green banners hang honoring every Jones team ever to make the state tournament. To the right side of the Longhorns scoreboard sit the boys' banners, 26 in all, including ones for the 2016 football and 2018 baseball Class 3A Oklahoma state champions. And to the left of the scoreboard sit the girls' banners. Three of them. All for cheerleading.

"In other words, no girls' team in softball or basketball had ever made the state tournament," Holbrook said.

In Holbrook's first year at the school, the girls' basketball team, led by eight freshmen, fell one game short of making state. The next year, the team lost in area play. Then last year, with her core now juniors, the team lost both games with a state bid on the line.

This year, that group of seniors, which includes Holbrook's daughter Joeli, knew it was their last chance. The team went 23-1 during the regular season, winning district and regional titles. Then on March 6, in the Class 3A Area III finals, the Longhorns defeated Kingston 51-39 to earn the long-awaited ticket to state.

"It was a great feeling, but we knew there was more we wanted to accomplish," she said.

The goal of making the wall achieved, the team aimed to make the water tower, where Jones honors its state championship teams. The first game for the second-seeded Longhorns would be against Eufaula at the 8,000-seat "Big House," the arena that holds wrestling and basketball state championships at the state fairgrounds. Holbrook pumped music into her practices and took her team to another large gym to prepare her players for the big time.

On game day, March 12, administrators closed school to give the team a proper send-off. There was a pep rally and a police escort. The girls were all given certificates commemorating what had already been a season to remember. Coach Holbrook addressed the crowd at the pep rally: "This day couldn't be any more perfect," she said.

But the night before, Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz had tested positive for the coronavirus before a game against the Oklahoma City Thunder. State health officials were concerned about the virus spreading through any sort of mass gathering.

With the team bus 10 minutes outside the fairgrounds, Holbrook's phone buzzed. There was a text from the trainer, who was already at the arena. The state had postponed the games. The bus pressed on and found Eufaula waiting outside the locked building. Tears began to fall. Officials told the team to turn around and go home. But Holbrook wouldn't have it.

MORE: Tornado, coronavirus and the 'luckiest' team

"It was gut-wrenching. Like you had just been sucker-punched," Holbrook said. "I told the team, 'We are here. We are going to get out. Dry your tears because we are going to get a picture.'"

After the bus eventually returned to the high school and everyone left, Holbrook sat in her office in silence and stared at the wall.

"For two hours," she said. "I just kept thinking, in 54 years of the state tournament at the Big House, the one year we happen to make it, 10 minutes before we get there ... seriously? This is what it comes down to? Some ... pandemic?"

Since then, her team has waited in limbo. This week is spring break. When her players return, there is practice scheduled for Sunday night, just in case the tournament resumes.

"I would practice for three months if it meant we got to play in the state tournament," Holbrook said. "Whatever it takes, an empty gym with just parents, we'd do that. I just hope they don't let it be this huge question mark of what could have been."

'Nobody can ever take that away from them'

CONSOLIDATING SCHOOLS IS a sensitive topic for any school district, but a funny thing happened late last month when Sullivan South High School in Kingsport, Tennessee, played for the school's first district championship in 36 years.

Students from Sullivan South, North and Central, who next year will combine to form a brand-new West Ridge High School, came together to overflow the student section with more than 400 strong in a 63-61 double-overtime Sullivan South victory.

"It was an amazing atmosphere and changed the community's perspective about everything," coach Michael McMeans said. "It kind of helped the adults start coming together to realize this was going to be a great new school. The kids drove all that."

That game sparked a late-season run for the 30-5 Rebels that culminated in a March 9 showdown against Alcoa, a powerhouse that has been to 22 Tennessee state tournaments. A state tournament bid, potentially Sullivan South's first, was on the line.

"Nobody thought we could win the game," McMeans said. "We had to go on the road. Everybody picked against us."

But the Rebels led from the beginning and defeated Alcoa 76-70. For McMeans, who twice lost the game to go to state as a Sullivan South player, it was a dream.

"Kids are jumping up and down on the bench. The coaches were all hugging," McMeans said. "You're just so happy, tears in your eyes."

When the team returned to school around midnight, the parking lot was filled with students and parents honking their horns and flashing their headlights. The next day, Tuesday, McMeans headed to Murfreesboro for the state tournament draw. On Wednesday, he returned to the school when rumors began spreading the team might not play because of the coronavirus. Thursday after practice, the team put together a list of the 23 people who would be allowed in the arena if the game were played without fans. Later that night, the tournament was postponed.

"They worked so hard for this special season," McMeans said. "The school is closing. And they don't know how to react. They're hurt. They've cried. They've been angry. All the emotions.

"I've tried to approach it with our kids, we made it either way. Nobody can ever take that away from them. It's a blessing that we got to play that game and to say we got there. But it's been tough."

'They can't take away the friendships'

IN THEIR SIX years of coaching the York Special Olympics basketball team at York High School in Elmhurst, Illinois, Tim Wealton and Steve Westendorf learned that the game is about far more than the final score. Every basket is celebrated with championship fervor, but it's also about growing the relationships between athletes and their peers. It's about helping athletes find a home in a student body of more than 2,500.

But with just a few minutes left to play in a semifinal showdown against Willowbrook (Villa Park, Illinois) in January, the coaches did something they had almost never done before. They called timeout and drew up a play after their double-digit lead had shrunk to three.

"We strategized way more than you typically would," Westendorf said. "But we had to get the ball in. We knew the game was going to come down to that."

The Dukes inbounded the ball without issue and won 30-27. A subsequent 44-35 win over Leyden punched the program's first ticket to state. And in the two months since, the coaches have worked on solving the logistics of transporting the team two hours away from home for a basketball tournament.

"You have to make sure we have the right bus, who is going to stay with these kids, take care of their medical issues," Wealton said. "You want it to be as accessible and easy for them as possible."

The school had scheduled a pep assembly for Friday, March 13, to clap the team to the bus before it made the two-hour trip to Bloomington for the tournament. But late Tuesday morning, March 10, the team found out the tournament had been canceled. The coaches got word out to the players and kept a scrimmage they had scheduled for Wednesday night.

"We told them to go out and play like it was their state tournament," Westendorf said. "And they beat the tar out of the other team, taking out some of their frustration."

The majority of the team will return next season, but for two seniors and two senior peer partners, that was the end. The coaches scrambled to hold a team banquet that Friday night at a local bowling alley, but coronavirus fears prompted them to cancel that event as well.

"It absolutely sucks," Wealton said. "There's no way around that. But a lot of what we teach to these athletes is Plan B: What do you do when something unexpected happens? So hopefully this will help them with those tools. There is still so much for them to be proud of. They can't take away the friendships. They can't take away all the time they had with their teammates. You have to keep that in perspective and try to move forward."

'It's been a tough week'

ELLIE WILES DIDN'T exactly have a choice when it came to joining color guard as a 7-year-old in 2013. Her mom marched with the founder of the local program. A scholarship is named after her grandparents. Her dad, two uncles and an aunt currently teach the event. And her older brother is a judge.

At Winter Guard International each spring, teams such as Wiles' Allegiance Color Guard in Dundee, Illinois, perform choreographed routines that combine wooden rifles, sabers, flags and dance. Think cheer competition meets drill team.

"I just love performing, love doing something that can inspire someone," she said.

Wiles was preparing for the last WGI of her life this month when her brother called and then texted while she was working at the local grocery store. WGI had had been canceled due to the coronavirus. It was the first time in 43 years the event had been canceled.

Wiles wasn't able to join a group phone call with her teammates but later caught up with her coach after her work shift.

"Not exactly the way I wanted to find out," she said. "I'm at work. Everyone is panic shopping. It's been a tough week."

'You see how precious it is now'

WHEN MARISA SHORROCK sat down at her computer last week and tried to express her emotions after her senior basketball season ended one win short of the state title game, she was frustrated. Angry. Confused.

The day after her No. 1-ranked Staples Wreckers beat Glastonbury to advance to the Connecticut state semifinals, she found out via text message that the state had canceled all winter sports championships due to concerns about the coronavirus. But that night, her brother played in a rec tournament at the school with more than 300 other boys. And the next day school was still in session.

"When the rules don't make any sense, that's when I begin to question the decisions being made," Shorrock wrote in a column that appeared in the Ruden Report, which covers area prep sports.

The column quickly circulated throughout Connecticut and eventually made its way to ESPN. So much has changed with the world in the days since the story first published, including Shorrock's perspective on the decision.

"Now the whole country is in shutdown mode," she said. "I fully agree with the decision. It was the right thing to do. We were one of the first to cancel. It was hard to process. But now I absolutely understand.

"People look at it as, 'You played a sport in high school, that's great.' But we work for this our whole lives. I've been playing since I could walk. To have this buildup, be the No. 1 team and then see it taken away is harsh. But now completely understandable."

Shorrock said she, the four other seniors and the rest of the team met after school the day the season was canceled, sat around the "S" at center court and shared how much the season meant to each of them. Later, at a team dinner at a local restaurant, the emotions continued to flow.

While the high school careers of some of her teammates might be over, Shorrock is hopeful she'll be able to represent her school one last time on the lacrosse team this spring.

"It would be nice to put that jersey on one last time," she said. "With basketball being taken away, you see how precious it is now. We all know it doesn't last forever."

'I'm not going to let this ruin everything'

THE CHATTER BEGAN long before the Colorado Class 5A girls' basketball state semifinals tipped off. By that night, Thursday, March 12, the NCAA men's and women's tournaments had been canceled. The NBA season had been postponed. And the students at Cherry Creek High School in Greenwood Village, Colorado, had already received a message that school had been canceled the next day. But the games went on.

Defending state champion Cherry Creek beat Highlands Ranch 55-42 that night, setting up a rematch for the title Friday against the Grandview Wolves. But when senior Jana Van Gytenbeek pulled into her driveway around midnight after the game, everything changed. The final had been canceled due to the coronavirus outbreak.

"I just sat in the car and cried for a while," she said. "I thought they were going to let us see it through. I didn't think that night was going to be my last game."

An impromptu late-night gathering took place at her house, with the tears starting over every time another teammate walked in the door. Eventually, the waves of sadness turned into an appreciation for all the team had accomplished.

"Even talking about it now gets me emotional," she said. "I'm happy. I'm proud of what we did. All the memories we have. I'm not going to let this ruin everything."

Less than a week since that night, the Stanford recruit's perspective has expanded even more.

"My dad said something funny to me. He was like, 'You know how you felt in the car when you heard the news? Who knew,'" she said. "Everything just blew up after that. Everything shut down. This is about way more than me and my team. This is the world. You get perspective from that."