As a teacher and a coach, Evanston’s Mike Ellis couldn’t help but give his basketball team a grade of A after compiling a 29-4 won-loss record against one of the toughest schedules in school history.
But the final grade will really read as “incomplete.”
Evanston’s season, along with the rest of the schools still alive in postseason play, was cut short on Thursday evening when the Illinois High School Association announced the cancellation of the Class 1A, 2A, 3A and 4A state basketball tournaments.
It’s the first time in the history of the tournament that the state organization has had to take such drastic action. The tourney, which began in 1908 as an 8-team invitational, wasn’t even interrupted during World War I or World War II. But the IHSA was forced to make the decision this week — with some members of teams involved in the small school tournaments already having arrived in Peoria —to wipe out the rest of the schedule due to concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic.
Evanston was scheduled to meet Loyola Academy Friday night in the championship game of the Class 4A Elk Grove Sectional tournament. The Wildkits were just two wins away from a third straight trip to the Final Four.
The IHSA also canceled competition in Scholastic Bowl, Drama and Group Interpretation, Music, Debate and Journalism, according to Executive Director Craig Anderson.
“We appreciate the patience and understanding that we have received from everyone involved in this process over the past 72 hours,” Anderson said in a press release. “We have stressed the fluidity of this situation and have been transparent about the possibility that a suspension or cancellation could occur. While we had support from the Illinois Department of Public Health and the Peoria City/County Health Department to continue our events with limited spectators, it has become untenable to continue the events among our member schools.
“Multiple schools who are participating or hosting these sports and activities have been forced to withdraw from those roles, clarifying the need for the IHSA to take definitive action. The Board considered suspending the events, but after deliberate discussion, did not believe that was a realistic option within the timeline. We feel for everyone who has been impacted, but must put the health and safety of all involved ahead of these events.
“I also want to commend the coaches and administrators from the Class 1A and Class 2A state finalists who traveled to Peoria today. While obviously disappointed, they conducted themselves with the utmost class as we charted this unprecedented situation together.”
Ellis didn’t expect to have to collect team uniforms — a typical end-of-season task —BEFORE the sectional championship game was supposed to be played.
“We had finished practice (Thursday) and we were getting ready to watch some video for scouting, so luckily at least we were all together when the news broke,” said the veteran head coach. “The kids were really frustrated and disappointed. Basketball is a year-round commitment for them and they worked really hard to get Downstate, only to see that opportunity taken away.
“I had 3 messages for them Thursday. One was that this is a life lesson, that tomorrow’s not promised to anyone, and you have to take advantage of the opportunities in front of you and try to learn from your experiences.
“It’s hard to tell 16-17 year-olds that they can’t play a sport they love. But I said how would you feel if your grandmother or grandfather became ill at one of your events? There’s a reason this decision was made.
“I also told them they should reflect on their great accomplishments this season. We don’t have a lot of control over our lives — only some control —and how you respond to circumstances in life is what’s important. In the summer, no one talked about them being one of the top 20 teams in the state. They accomplished a lot of goals, and when you stack them up it was a very, very successful season.”
Evanston captured Thanksgiving tournament (St. Viator) and Christmas tournament (Centralia) championships while winning its first 18 games, and earned at least a share of the Central Suburban League South division championship for the sixth year in a row, extending that program record.
The Wildkits also won their 7th IHSA regional crown in a row, then defeated Glenbrook South in the sectional semifinals to qualify for a spot in the sectional finals.
Ellis said the fact that Evanston’s entire starting five this season consisted of juniors didn’t make the decision to end the season any easier to take.
“To be honest, I haven’t even thought about next year,” he said. “We have 3 seniors (DeVaughn Bell, Jerome Smith, Colin Farragher) and you obviously feel bad the seniors at all of the schools who won’t have the chance to win a state championship next year.
“The IHSA had the social responsibility to try to limit the spread of the virus. Basketball is really important in my life, but it means nothing if I’m not still around for my family. This season will always be an open book now. There’s no final chapter.”