BILLINGS — Today is usually known as Selection Sunday, when the 68 Division I men's college basketball teams are chosen to compete in March Madness. It's a favorite day on the calendar for many who pore over their brackets, hoping to win office pools and see their team crowned national champion. But this March, we have a different kind of Madness - one without sports for the foreseeable future, after a week no one will ever forget.
The first known case of COVID-19, known now to all as the coronavirus disease, has been traced back to mid-November, but American sports fans will remember Wednesday, March 11. That night, news broke that Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert had tested positive and everything changed.
Utah's game in Oklahoma City was abruptly postponed moments before the opening tip, and the NBA season was suspended minutes later. Thursday morning, the dominoes began to fall. The NHL and MLBfollowed suit, suspending their seasons indefinitely. The first to affect Montana came from the Big Sky Confernece basketball championships in Boise.
"The conference announced on Thursday morning that the remainder of the men's and women's basketball tournaments would be canceled," MTN's Kyle Hansen told us, "as other major college tournaments and pro sports around the United State were taking similar measures as this outbreak continues."
The news was especially tough for the Montana State women, who had already advanced to the championship game. Cats Big Sky player of the year Fallyn Freije summed it up on Twitter.
We had one game left. One. This is completely devastating💔 https://t.co/OmzxIBdQx5
— Fallyn Freije (@fallynfreije) March 12, 2020
Soon after, Montana's Frontier Conference schools were hit, as the NAIA canceled its national basketball tournaments, including the women's event in Billings.
"We understand the decision," said Visit Billings director Alex Tyson. "We understand it's for the safety of individuals as well as the community as a whole and obviously the region. Nonetheless disappointing, though."
At least five Montana teams would have qualified.
But through it all, fans still had the high school state tournaments to get them through. Play went on as usual Thursday, prompting a USA Today article that noted Montana as the only state in America to do that.
Then by 6:30 p.m. Friday, public address announcers at the four tournament sites read a letter from the Montana High School Association proclaiming there were no positive COVID-19 cases in the state and play would continue as normal. By 7 p.m., that was no longer true, and by 9:01 p.m., MHSA executive director Mark Beckman drafted a new letter, canceling the remaining tournament games, starting Saturday morning. Semifinal winner were named co-state champions.
The knee-jerk reaction was always going to be anger and disappointment, though teams all agreed later they understood the decision that had to be made for the greater good.
The story isn't over. The Big Sky Conference has suspended all spring sports competitions indefinitely. Same goes for the GNAC, which houses MSU Billings. The Frontier Conference is leaving that choice up to its member schools for now - with Rocky Mountain College taking the lead, postponing spring football drills that were slated to start Friday until at least April 13. An NAIA meeting regarding their spring sports championships is set for later this week.
UPDATE: The NAIA announced Monday it is canceling its spring sports season, effective immediately.
High school spring sports, meanwhile, have been practicing since March 9. The MHSA will hold a meeting Monday to discuss the next steps for those activities, with competition set to begin as early as Friday.