SOUTH WAYNE — The seniors on the Black Hawk girls basketball team went into the state tournament with a career record of 103-2. And that’s the exact record they left with.
“Hopefully the kids can really take some solace in the fact that they’ve just did some amazing things this year and the last two years,” Warriors coach Mike Flanagan said March 13 after he and his players stepped off the bus one last time at Black Hawk High School following a firetruck procession from Browntown to South Wayne.
Black Hawk (26-0) was scheduled to play Wausau Newman Catholic at 9 a.m. that morning at the Resch Center in Green Bay. The Warriors, defending WIAA Division 5 state champions, were the top-ranked team from start to finish this year, going unbeaten all the way through. In fact, the team has a 54-game winning streak dating back to the 2018 championship game — a loss to Bangor, another state qualifier.
“We still have the longest winning streak in the state of Wisconsin right now; that hasn’t changed,” Flanagan said. “We tried to remind them, it’s just words from an old man at this point, but — hopefully they’re listening — you don’t need a trophy to validate what you’ve done.”
But just 10 hours before tip-off — at about 11 p.m. March 12, the WIAA made arguably the toughest call in its 125-year history. The state’s sole governing body of high school sports would cancel all remaining winter sports contests due to the growing concerns of the spreading coronavirus (COVID-19).
“I want the student-athletes and their coaches to know that your school leaders, the WIAA Executive Staff, all our committees and the Board of Control have done everything imaginable to try to provide and preserve these opportunities for you,” WIAA Executive Director Dave Anderson said in a statement. “However, we want and need to be responsible in helping the global and state efforts to stem the tide and spread of this virus.”
Coronavirus has been slowly working its way around the world for more than three months. Originally based in the Wuhan region of China, one by one countries from across the world started seeing cases of the flu-like virus. This illness, however, has a death rate much higher than the usual flu.
I just feel as though … their hand was forced, to a degree. I mean, the cancellation of March Madness; when the Big Ten comes out and says they’re not doing anything for the rest of the academic year and stuff like that, I just feel like, give the facts that they had then then thrown on top of that, they know then that (there will be) public scrutiny.Black Hawk coach Mike Flanagan
As the outbreak spread, places hit hard like Italy began shutting down its sports leagues — an unlikely premise just weeks ago. On March 10, several colleges began to prep for closing, as well as limiting large numbers of crowds to athletic events in hopes of slowing the spread. The next day the NBA postponed its season after two players tested positive. The NCAA shuttered its massively popular tournament, then professional baseball and hockey followed suit, as did many of the remaining soccer leagues from around the globe.
“I just feel as though … their hand was forced, to a degree,” Flanagan said. “I mean, the cancellation of March Madness; when the Big Ten comes out and says they’re not doing anything for the rest of the academic year and stuff like that, I just feel like, give the facts that they had then then thrown on top of that, they know then that (there will be) public scrutiny.”
In a meeting during the early morning of March 12, the WIAA announced it would limit the number of participants at the girls state basketball tournament — as well as the remainder of the boys playoffs. Hours later it was announced that the boys tournament would not be held at the Kohl Center, its usual home. With limited crowds, sectional semifinal boys basketball games went on that night. As did four girls basketball semifinals, covering Divisions 3 and 4.
After the final girls Division 4 state semifinal game, board members of the WIAA met in the Resch Center, and after deliberating for nearly 45 minutes announced the cancellation of the remainder of the tournament. The next game scheduled? Black Hawk vs. Newman Catholic.
“I think the folks who are making the decision wanted to deliberate as long as possible to give it time. And the one thing about the WIAA is this is not a win for them — we need to think about the financial ramifications of this decision,” Flanagan said.
The boys and girls basketball tournaments are typically the WIAA’s largest money-makers, bringing in enough revenue to help pay for almost all of the other 22 championships.
Black Hawk superintendent Willy Chambers is a member of the WIAA board and was in the meetings. Flanagan said that even though he knew he had no say in the matter, he had confidence in not just the board’s vote, but that of Chambers.
“It must have been interesting for Mr. Chambers, having to make that decision; and knowing how it impacted not only him as a board member, but him for our school,” Flanagan said.
Before the ruling was made public, the coaches in the state tournament got the first word. Flanagan said it was a tough position to be in to gather his players in the hotel and break the news that the season — and the careers of multiple players — was over.
“It was the hardest thing last night when I walked into those rooms to break the news. It was just immediate grief and disbelief,” Flanagan said. “We gave them (seniors) a little time and then we got the whole team together and just tried to process it. The first admission I had to make was that there was nothing I could say that would really capture where they were at or relieve the sting or anything.”
The following morning, the team packed up and left. Flanagan said the mood on the bus for the more than 3.5 hours on the road swung through a rollercoaster of emotions.
“It was a completely different mood than I’ve ever really felt — like the American Eagle (rollercoaster ride). It was scary … it was kind of that up and down … there were times when it sounded like a group of kids just really happy to be together and focused on the achievements,” Flanagan said. “And then there were times it just had that eerie silence, kind of almost ominous climate where, you know, a lot of broken hearts and crushed dreams were in that bus. And you could see the emotion coming off, especially from the seniors.”
Hundreds gathered at the high school, awaiting the firetruck parade and procession. Earlier in the day Governor Tony Evers declared a state of emergency in response to the rapidly-growing outbreak, and in doing so limited gatherings to under 250 people, meaning Black Hawk couldn’t hold an official pep rally to greet the players. School would be called off for nearly three weeks as well.
It was the hardest thing last night when I walked into those rooms to break the news. It was just immediate grief and disbelief.Black Hawk coach Mike Flanagan
Just at 2 p.m., the Warriors returned to their stomping grounds. To share in tears, hugs and smiles from parents, friends and fans.
“You see all those people and everybody is so — I’m not telepathic, but I feel like they’re just imagining what it could have felt like; what it felt like last year. And again, it’s just so tough (because) you just didn’t have the opportunity,” Flanagan said.
The outgoing seniors ended the season with a win — in the sectional championship a week prior. Natalie Leuzinger will suit up for the Wisconsin Badgers next season, while Maddy Huschitt will take her talents to University of Dubuque. Hannah Butler is undecided where and if she will play hoops in college. Kristin Knapp and Hannah Milliken also graduate.
“I think that I’ve used this expression before, but their record just speaks for itself in terms of what they’ve done. They’ve done it the right way — they’ve done everything we’ve ever asked them,” Flanagan said. “They’ve set marks in terms of team accomplishments — and some of them individual accomplishments — that are just unprecedented. We’re just really, really sad for them that (this was it).”
Leuzinger leaves as a four-time all-state player, winning conference player of the year all four years as well. She’s also the school’s all-time leading scorer. Butler is second on the team in career scoring, and was co-conference player of the year twice, as well as all-state three times.
“I can’t believe I already played my last game with my sister,” said Hannah’s sister, junior Bailey Butler in a Friday tweet that ended with the heartbroken emoji. The pair qualified for state in all three years on the varsity squad.
Tickets for the WIAA Girls and Boys State Basketball tournaments will be refunded in full. Please allow staff time to make these refunds and contact the WIAA office only if you do not see a refund to your account within two weeks of the tournament. Any tickets purchased at school will be refunded by your school and not the Resch Center or the WIAA.WIAA, in a statement March 13
While a few dozen schools were robbed of a proper end to their basketball season, the spring sports season could also be in jeopardy. The WIAA announced that with Evers’ plan to close schools from March 18 to April 6, teams would not be able to hold practices or games in the interim — hampering the spring season.
“Consistent with Gov. Evers’ announcement Friday, all school training, practices, scrimmages and contests are suspended. In addition, schools and coaches may not bring students together or be involved with students during this time period for any extracurricular or athletic purposes, which includes practices and other instructional/organizational purposes,” the WIAA said in a press release March 15. “Coaches may provide individual workouts virtually, but shall not encourage or organize their team assembling to practice.”
Athletic directors from conferences around the state met up to discuss what scheduling changes could be done, but no final decisions were made. If school remains closed longer than April 6, time crunches even more.
The WIAA stipulates that with schools shuttered for more than two weeks, teams must practice for five days prior to a game; and on the other end, teams must have four completed contests in order to qualify for the postseason. The WIAA currently has no plans to alter its spring sports state tournaments, either by pushing all seasons back several weeks or otherwise. The worst-case scenario? The spring season is shuttered in its entirety, leaving thousands of Wisconsin teens from playing their last baseball or softball game; or chasing one last shot at a state berth in track, soccer, golf or tennis.
Anyone who purchased tickets for the girls or boys state tournaments can get a refund, per the WIAA.
“Tickets for the WIAA Girls and Boys State Basketball tournaments will be refunded in full. Please allow staff time to make these refunds and contact the WIAA office only if you do not see a refund to your account within two weeks of the tournament,” the WIAA said in a statement. “Any tickets purchased at school will be refunded by your school and not the Resch Center or the WIAA.”