The scene surrounding the Lions girls’ basketball team last Wednesday afternoon was a far cry from where they stood just 24 hours later.
With a police escort and community members, family and friends lining Main Street in downtown Cottage Grove, the team made their way north to Forest Grove on Wed., Mar. 11 for their first trip to the OSAA 4A State Championships since the 2010 season. The Lions were slated to play #1-ranked Philomath the following day at 1:30 p.m. for a chance to go to the state semifinals.
“It was really upbeat because we had such a great send-off,” said head coach Steve Eastburn. “Boy, the parents had all gotten together the night before and put together this great send-off for the girls.”
The team bus made its way through town as the hopes and hard work of the community and players alike were seemingly coming to fruition.
“We stopped on Main Street and the girls were just so excited,” Eastburn said. “They were just in a great mood. The excitement for the state tournament was really high at that point.”
Less than 24 hours later, all those hopes were dashed.
The team arrived at their hotel around 9 p.m. and shortly thereafter received the first slate of disappointing updates that would eventually culminate in the unprecedented.
“With today’s rapidly changing situation,” read a press release from the OSAA, “the OSAA has made the difficult decision to change its spectator policies for state championship events. Beginning Thursday morning, March 12, per guidance from the OHA and the Governor, only participating students and coaches, essential event staff personnel and media with OSAA‐issued credentials will be allowed to attend OSAA State Championship events.”
The decision was a blow to fans, parents and the players themselves. Playing in an empty arena typically isn’t a part of the dream that these young athletes share, but games were still slated to continue despite the change.
“I know they took that fairly well individually,” Eastburn said. “But, then they started calling the parents and were pretty upset, of course, that they weren’t going to get to watch. That kind of started having a negative effect on the situation.”
Comments on social media questioned the OSAA’s decision in light of an earlier announcement by the NCAA to allow limited access to family members of players in their own championship March Madness tournament.
However, the following morning Eastburn attended an all-coaches meeting where they were told the entire tournament was canceled, going the way of March Madness and nearly every other live sporting event in all corners of the country, despite initial attempts to limit spectators as opposed to full cancellation.
A further OSAA press release clarified the cancellation of all remaining winter championship events, with OSAA executive director Peter Weber stating, “As this unprecedented public health emergency continues to evolve, we believe that the responsibility to our member schools and communities regarding the health and safety of participants remains our highest priority.”
“That’s when things became really problematic,” Eastburn said. “That meeting didn’t last very long … We were debating on how to tell the girls and I thought it was a good idea to tell them immediately so they could start getting their parents informed and organized.”
That is when, for the members of the Sky-Em-winning Lady Lions and athletes at all levels around the nation, the heartbreaking reality of the situation began to set in. There would be no coronations, no championships, no last-ditch efforts to pull off an upset and no final game for seniors in their last year of school.
“We talked a lot about it,” Eastburn said. “It was really emotional, to say the least, especially for our two seniors. All the girls were emotional, but especially Megan [Schatz] and Ema [Gardner] because they don’t get another year. That really hit home at that point.”
Things can always change, but as people all over the world have seen over the last week or two, it’s sudden, unforeseen jolts to our expectations and plans that can lead to chaos, confusion and a difficulty in mentally reckoning with the current reality.
“It’s hard because it was so sudden,” Eastburn said in regards to how his team took the news. “There’s no real good way to have closure on that immediately. I think it’s just going to take time. The only thing that’s gonna make it any better is time.”
By this time next year, it’s possible this will feel like a distant memory, but for right now, the sting is painfully fresh after a season that provided so much promise for the Cottage Grove girls’ basketball program.
“It’s such an accomplishment just to make the state tournament,” said Eastburn. “It’s hard to do and they might think, ‘Oh, we’ll be back there next year,’ but it just doesn’t always work that way. Every year is a new year.”
The Lions nearly swept the Sky-Em league in regular season play. They boast the league player of the year (Matty Ladd) and a potential player of the year candidate in 2021 (Gracie Arnold). All but two of their current players will return next year. They had lofty goals for this season - mostly achieved, but the biggest left unrealized - and, despite this interruption, Eastburn hopes that can carry over into next year at a time when optimism is at a premium.
“Hopefully the players coming back next year will be motivated, have a renewed passion for the game because, as they saw, it can be taken away from you.”