TRAVERSE CITY — There were eight district finals in 11-player football and three regional finals in 8-player football Saturday.
Grayling’s afternoon game with Boyne City was one of them — and it might be the last for quite some time.
“I’ve told them since the beginning of the playoffs, enjoy it,” said Grayling coach Eric Tunney.
The day after the Michigan High School Athletic Association’s football district playoffs were complete with volleyball semifinals about to begin, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, under Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration, ordered the suspension of organized sports for three weeks to limit the spread of COVID-19.
The restrictions go into effect Wednesday and expire Dec. 8, four days after the MHSAA’s 11-player football state finals are scheduled to be played at Ford Field.
The MHSAA issued a statement immediately following a televised state press conference that it would suspend all fall tournaments and winter practices and competitions scheduled to begin during the next three weeks.
“We understand the need for action, and we will explore all options to complete our fall tournaments when restrictions are lifted,” said MHSAA Executive Director Mark Uyl. “We will assess everything over the next three weeks relative to Fall and Winter sports and come up with a plan that keeps us connected to our goal, for months, of having three seasons that are played to their conclusions.”
The new restrictions announced Sunday have no effect on the National Football League or College Sports, both of which test athletes for the virus in some capacity daily. That’s because MDHHS’s Emergency Orders have had separate provisions for professional and collegiate sports.
MDHHS Director Robert Gordon said neither may have a live audience, even if attendance is restricted to family members like the Detroit Lions and football teams of Michigan State University and the University of Michigan have attempted.
“We are suspending organized sports for three weeks because the game brings together people and settings that often involve high levels of contact and acceleration and where individuals move from outdoors to indoors, like locker rooms,” said MDHHS Director Robert Gordon.
The halt mirrors the spring stoppage that interrupted high school basketball playoffs.
High school basketball playoffs were heating up, and the World Health Organization had declared the coronavirus a pandemic. The NCAA decided its postseason would be conducted without fans, then later that night Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19.
The next day the NCAA canceled its March Madness tournament, and the MHSAA followed suit by postponing theirs. Girls basketball regional finals were scheduled to be played that Thursday night, March 12; while boys basketball district finals were set to be played Friday, March 13.
The association repeatedly said it intended to play the few remaining games at a later date, only to cancel the remainder of the winter postseason and spring sports April 3.
Even with the same statement by Uyl Sunday night, multiple coaches said they had little hope of future games following the new orders.
“The chatter among ADs for the past two weeks was that this was going to happen,” said Joe Smokevitch, football coach for Johannesburg-Lewiston.
Traverse City Central head coach Eric Schugars was in a Zoom session with his players at 5 p.m. watching film in preparation for North Farmington as social media posts circulated with leaked information about the 6 p.m. press conference.
“It’s just another one of those punches to the gut you didn’t see coming,” an emotional Schugars said. “I think if you look at it, we’re one of 64 teams in the state that can say we ended on a win versus eight. It’s good to say that.”
After beating previously-undefeated Midland on the road, the Trojans had a chance to host North Farmington which received a forfeit to advance past South Lyon.
“This is a team that had the potential and certainly a good shot of winning a regional title next week, then you’re in the semis and you’re one chance away from a state finals,” Schugars said. “We had a team a team that was certainly worthy of an opportunity to play for a state championship. I’m proud of knowing that at this point.”
Six northern Michigan teams — TC Central, TC St. Francis, Joburg, Suttons Bay, Grayling and Cadillac — all were still alive in the state football playoffs. Mesick and Cadillac were set to play in volleyball quarterfinals Tuesday. MHSAA state finals for girls golf, tennis, soccer and boys and girls cross country all were finished before Sunday.
Cadillac football coach Cody Mallory told his players on social media that rather than responding in anger, he wanted to express thanks.
“Thanks to our coaches and staff for accepting the additional strain and sacrifices required to make this season happen,” Mallory said. “Thanks to our parents for trusting us to follow protocols and put the health of their sons first.”
Michelle Brines, longtime coach of the Cadillac volleyball team, had a team dinner planned to celebrate the team’s regional title after their practice Sunday. Her team was in the gym practicing as Gordon announced the restrictions on TV.
Brines said the team still went to dinner, but it was a quiet one. She’s hopeful that the Vikings will get a chance to play after the three week pause, as volleyball is considered by most to be a year-round sport.
But for the time being it was hard. Especially for her daughter, Renee, a junior on the team who always wanted to play at Kellogg Arena in Battle Creek after managing her mother’s teams year after year.
A win over Birch Run on Tuesday — technically the day before MDHHS’s restrictions take effect — would have made that reality.
Michelle said that brought Renee to tears.
“She was here were when those basketball teams were trying to be hopeful, and kept being hopeful, and kept discussed until it got shut down,” Michelle Brines said. “That’s all she’s ever strived for … to get to Battle Creek.”