Tourney called off due to COVID-19
They were still riding high following an impressive victory in the Class A State Girls Basketball quarterfinals over Red Lake. The Minneota players were gearing up Friday morning for their semifinal contest against Waterville-Elysian-Morristown.
The coaches and players had just arrived in the locker room at Williams Arena. The clock read 10:45 a.m., just 75 minutes away from game time.
Ranked No. 1 in Class A and riding an 18-game winning streak, the Vikings were excited to take the next step toward defending their state title.
Inside the locker room, team members were fixing their hair and making other preparations before they would begin putting on their uniforms.
A tournament host had led the team into the locker room and then informed them on the events that would soon unfold such as where players should stand during introductions, that the game would be televised, and that they had decided to forego the normal pre-game hand shakes as the coronavirus was rearing its ugly head around the world.
Then it was Coach Chad Johnston’s turn to go over some of the same pre-game procedures to make sure his players understood them.
“As I was talking to the players, (assistant coach) Dale Kockelman was standing by the door and said he needed to talk to me,” Johnston recalls. “I told him to wait a minute until I was finished talking to the players.”
Again, Kockelman asked Johnston to come over, this time with a little more insistence.
The coaches then went outside the locker room door where they were met by the same host and a Minnesota State High School League representative.
“I had no idea what was going on,” Johnston said. “And then I was told the news that the tournament was being cancelled.”
Johnston immediately notified Activities Director Cari Pohlen and then texted his wife the bad news, perhaps delaying the inevitable task of having to tell his players.
“It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do,” he admitted. “There is no way to prepare for something like that. As a coach, it’s difficult to talk to your players following a loss to end the season. But this was harder than that.”
Morgan Hennen, the lone senior on the team, listened in disbelief.
“After J (Coach Johnston) told us he was sorry to tell us this, but the state tournament had just been cancelled, the first thing I thought was ‘No way’,” she said. “I was the first one to start crying. And when the others looked at me, everyone on the team started crying.”
To work hard all season with a common goal in mind, and then to have it pulled out from under them before they could take the court was devastating news.
“I just thought to myself that I couldn’t have just played my last game and would never get to wear that uniform again,” Hennen said. “At least when you’re playing a game, you know that if you lose you are done. But we had just won the day before.”
Johnston, who recently lost his 13-year-old niece to cancer, did his best to inform his team about life’s lessons.
“He told us about how people have it worse than we do,” Hennen recalls. “He said people are losing their jobs, losing loved ones and things like that. It did help a little to hear those things, but it still hurt to know that the season was over.”
The team chose not to have a welcome home, preferring to return to Minneota with little fanfare during such a difficult time. The Vikings would not be bringing home a trophy as they had hoped to. The team will receive a banner to hang in the gym to indicate they were a “Final Four” team in the state tournament.
The one positive for Hennen is that she can always say she was a state champion, having been a starter on last year’s championship team.
“I really wanted to win one in my last year,” she said. “And we really wanted to win one for J, after all he has had to go through lately.”
As the coach and the senior walked out of the locker room together, he leaned over and gave her a “side hug”.
“It was tough on everyone,” he said. “But it was toughest on her.”