The 2019-20 sports season is one that will go down in history.
The cancellation of an entire sports season is almost unprecedented in Montana history. The Montana High School Association has named a state champion for boys track and field every year dating back to 1946. Girls track and field has had a champion every year since the sport was sanctioned in 1969. It’s estimated that nearly 550 kids in the Billings area alone will be affected by the cancellation of the 2020 spring sports season.
Emotions are high, opinions are strong, and many unknowns lurk in the air. While some athletes won’t have the opportunity to showcase their skills at all this season, some are still mourning the loss of one cut short.
Fallyn Freije, the 2019-20 Big Sky Conference women's basketball player of the year, knows all too well what it feels like to experience an abrupt end to a record-setting season at Montana State.
She was 40 minutes away from realizing a lifelong dream of playing in the NCAA Tournament. When she was little, she told her mom she was going to get there someday. Coming from a small town in North Dakota, basketball was more than just a hobby. It was a way of life, a family tradition, and an escape from the hard times.
Her drive and competitiveness landed her on the varsity as an eighth grader and eventually a scholarship to the University of North Dakota. When things didn’t work out at the Division I school, she found herself playing for coach Tricia Binford at Montana State.
“It was the perfect fit for me," Freije said. "I loved the coaches, the team, and community support. It was a place I knew I would fit in and regain my love for basketball.”
The season was one for the record books as the team went on to clinch the Big Sky Conference regular-season title. The Bobcats were looking to break two school records in the Big Sky Conference tournament championship game versus the Idaho Vandals: a 17-game winning streak and 25 wins in one season.
Could they be that Cinderella team? The question was hard to ignore for coaches, players and fans alike.
But that thought was quickly erased when the announcement was made that all conference and NCAA tournaments would be canceled.
“It felt surreal, like it wasn’t really happening," Freije said. "I was in complete shock and just felt numb. How could we be so close and not get to finish it out?”
Dreams could have been made a reality. Records could have been broken. Her career could have come full circle.
Instead, there were tears. Lots of tears.
“I realize now that people are losing their lives and jobs, and there is more to life than basketball," Freije said. "My faith has really helped to see it from a different perspective.”
Thankfully, Freije’s storied journey doesn’t have to end on that note. She signed with an agent two weeks after MSU ended its season and is headed to play professionally in Europe.
“Continue working and your time will come. When it does, you’ll be ready," she said when asked what advice she had for young high school athletes missing out on their spring sports seasons. "Try not to focus on the ending but the journey as a whole, and don’t forget to remember the life lessons you’ve learned.”
As fans, athletes, families and coaches adjust to the altered and canceled seasons, they'll remember what still remains: the real value of sports.
Perhaps sports provide people with a way to escape reality, channel emotions and bring forth hope. Maybe they give them the opportunity to go to college when that otherwise might not have been possible. And for all the small towns out there, sports often provide a spark when there isn’t one.
The communication skills, work ethic, dedication and perseverance learned through sports are invaluable, lifelong tools, as are the friendships forged on long bus rides or hours of practicing together.
Whatever sports have done, they'll continue through this turbulent time.