CIAC Cancels State Tournaments in Wake of Coronavirus Outbreak
The Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference (CIAC) made a monumental decision last week when the organization announced that it was canceling all of its remaining State Tournament games as a result of coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. On March 10, CIAC Executive Director Glenn Lungarini held a press conference at which he announced that state competitions for boys’ basketball, girls’ basketball, boys’ ice hockey, and boys’ swimming and diving were canceled, thus bringing an end to the winter season, as well as the careers of hundreds of high school athletes.
Several teams had just played State Tournament games the previous evening, and many more were scheduled to play throughout the week. Shortly after the announcement, a few non-CIAC-sanctioned events—such as the Girls’ Ice Hockey State Tournament, the New England Gymnastics Championship, and the New England Dance Championship—were also canceled.
The spring season is scheduled to begin on Saturday, April 4, although the prospect of that happening seems unlikely, especially considering the wave of cancellations that ensued on the collegiate and professional levels following the CIAC’s announcement.
As of press time, more than 3,700 people in the United States had been diagnosed with COVID-19, including 64 fatalities. Twenty-nine states have closed schools in wake of the outbreak. President Donald Trump declared the pandemic a national emergency on March 13.
“After much consideration and consultation, the CIAC has made the difficult decision to cancel all remaining CIAC winter tournament games,” Lungarini said at the press conference. “The CIAC understands and appreciates the disappointment that student-athletes, parents, coaches, and administrators may feel as a result of this decision. However, we must always place the health and safety of our student-athletes first.”
The CIAC made its decision after speaking with numerous administrators from schools throughout Connecticut, as well as state education officials and Governor Ned Lamont. On March 9, the CIAC stated in a press release that it would be monitoring State Tournament games as they pertain to the coronavirus outbreak on a daily basis.
The following morning, the CIAC announced that it was holding a press conference to address the continuation of winter tournaments in the face of COVID-19 concerns. Lungarini stepped up to the podium and stated that all tournaments were canceled. After the press conference, the CIAC released a statement announcing the cancellation of the tournaments.
“The decision was made in light of discussions with numerous agencies and considering the circumstances of our member schools, our championship venues, and weighing the health and safety of our student-athletes, parents, and fans given the uncertainty that surrounds the spread of this virus,” the statement said.
The immediate reaction to the CIAC’s decision was widely negative. As soon as the announcement was made, people took to social media to express their discontent, suggesting alternatives such as playing state games in empty buildings. Jake Walker, a former member of the ice hockey program at Fairfield Prep, started an online petition in an effort to play the tournaments without fans in the stands. The petition received more than 90,000 signatures.
The NCAA initially announced that it was going to play its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments behind closed doors, but ultimately decided to cancel all postseason tournaments for both the winter and spring seasons. Numerous professional sports organizations, including the NBA, NHL, MLB, and MLS, have suspended their seasons indefinitely.
Connecticut was the first state to cancel high school sports for the winter season, and several others have done so since then. East Haven has already announced that it is postponing all spring sports until school is back in session. This week, the CIAC will meet with commissioners from leagues around to state to discuss the situation regarding the spring season.
The day after the cancellation of the winter season, a crowd of approximately 500 people assembled outside the CIAC office to protest its decision. The protest, which included athletic directors, coaches, parents, and student-athletes, was organized by players from the Darien boys’ ice hockey team in response to Walker’s petition. Darien’s players wanted to meet with Lungarini, although that never materialized. Lungarini spoke to the media as the protest was getting underway, but as the crowd grew larger and people began voicing their opinions, he was escorted back into the building by police.
At the press conference, Lungarini said the CIAC was sensitive to the fact that the decision to cancel the tournaments would prevent many athletes, including scores of seniors, from pursuing their dream of winning a state title.
“We certainly understand and appreciate the emotion that sports brings and do take into account that there are seniors that were looking forward to that last game, looking forward to making that run to the championship. And to them, they certainly get hit with news now that they’re not going to have the ability to do that,” said Lungarini. “We respect and understand how difficult that can be for those student-athletes, as well as their parents and others.”
The Final Buzzer
East Haven seniors Lexi Pendziwater and Bella Ragaini are among the host of athletes who have played the final game of their high school careers. The duo had helped the Yellowjackets’ girls’ basketball team advance to the quarterfinals of the Class MM State Tournament before it was canceled. Pendizwater was just 29 points away from reaching 1,000 for her career.
“I’ve been very emotional since finding out that we couldn’t finish the tournament. It’s been really hard,” Pendziwater said. “I was in school when I found out. As soon as I did, I immediately felt numb. I couldn’t speak. I just started crying. I couldn’t go back to class.”
Two years ago, Ragaini hit a shot at the buzzer to lift East Haven to victory in the Class M State Tournament final. Just like Pendziwater, Ragaini was a senior leader on this year’s team and wanted to help the Yellowjackets get back to Mohegan Sun.
“I was really shocked. I couldn’t believe it,” said Ragaini. “When we found out we couldn’t play, I starting bawling my eyes out. How could this be possible? I still can’t believe this is how it’s going to end. Maybe we end on a loss, maybe we end on a win. I never thought it would just stop.”
The Daniel Hand girls’ basketball team reached the Class L state final last season and was set to play in the quarterfinal round of this year’s bracket. Head Coach Tim Tredwell appreciates that the CIAC was looking out for everyone’s best interest when it canceled the tournaments. However, he still feels sympathetic for his athletes who suited up for the Tigers for the last time without realizing that was going to be the case.
“I was especially heartbroken for our seniors who played their final game without knowing it. We’ve been fortunate to play in a state final twice, and the experience is easily one of the most memorable you can have as a coach or a player, so to lose that opportunity is incredibly upsetting,” Tredwell said. “I know the CIAC made their decision with the health and welfare of the students in mind and, as more information became available, it clearly was the correct one.”
Guilford boys’ basketball Head Coach Jeff DeMaio echoes Tredwell’s sentiments. DeMaio credited the CIAC for making its unprecedented decision to cancel dozens of State Tournament games, especially since so many other sports organizations promptly followed suit.
“As it turned out, although we were all disappointed, the CIAC did the tough thing, but the right thing,” said DeMaio. “There were too many unknowns and too many risks involved in continuing to play. And given what has continued to happen across this country, it seems that the CIAC was actually ahead of the curve in their decision to end winter sports.”
A Bigger Picture
Branford boys’ ice hockey Head Coach Jim DiNapoli said his athletes had a hard time accepting that they wouldn’t get a chance to defend their Division II state title. The Hornets had just won their first-round states game the night before the CIAC made its announcement. As the week unfolded and the situation around the country became more dire, the athletes on the team started to get a clearer idea of the bigger picture.
“This transcends sports, but to lose your playoffs or to lose your regular season as we are seeing with some spring sports, it’s hard for teenagers to process. By [March 12], all the players understood that there was something bigger going on in the country. When the NBA, NHL, MLB, Broadway, and Disney all shut down, I think that helped the kids digest it,” DiNapoli said. “It seems the CIAC was really on the forefront. That’s what resulted in the anger, because there wasn’t an understanding of the magnitude of what was happening around the country.”
Like Branford, the North Haven boys’ ice hockey squad was coming off of a first-round win in the Division II State Tournament. While Head Coach Chris Avena felt bad that the Indians wouldn’t be able to go any further, he made sure they understood that the season was still a success. North Haven hadn’t made states in several years, so Avena wanted his players, particularly his seniors, to know that he was proud of them for getting back into the bracket and then posting a victory.
“To see everyone step up and play as well as they did, we can definitely find a silver lining in that. That’s more than a lot of people give to their seniors,” said Avena. “We left on such a high note. Other than winning the title, this was as good as anything we could have had.”
The Morgan boys’ basketball team also won its opening game of states. Head Coach Frank Rossi and the Huskies were getting ready for practice when they heard the CIAC’s decision. Rossi brought his athletes together and tried to get them to take the bad news in stride. Above all else, Rossi wanted them to gain something from the way they handled their whirlwind of emotions.
“I knew there would be a lot of emotions, and I tried to relay that it was OK to feel angry or sad,” said Rossi. “All season long we try to teach the kids how to deal with adversity on the court. This was one of those examples where sports correlate to real life.”
The Valley Regional boys’ basketball team also had aspirations of going on a big run in the Division V State Tournament. The Warriors earned a first-round bye and were gearing up to play a second-round game when it was called off. Head Coach Kevin Woods’s heart went out to all the athletes who saw their opportunity to play in states disappear in an instant.
“It was just a sad day for anyone to see. It’s sad to see so many athletes and performers in all different areas not get their chance,” Woods said. “If you play in the tournament and come up a little short, that’s something you can live with, but to not even get a chance is tough to swallow. Sometimes those moments can help you put things in perspective, though.”
Valley senior captain Dylan Sparaco and his teammates are trying to put the cancellation of states in perspective. Like so many other teams, the Warriors leaned on each other in an effort to process the events of the past week. Sparaco said that coming together as friends helped everyone find some closure on a campaign that came to a sudden and unexpected end.
“We had a team meeting after the announcement, and that meeting almost felt like our funeral. It was one of the most emotional moments of our lives, but being there together definitely helped,” said Sparaco. “The lesson is to cherish every moment that you have. You have to cherish the moments you have with your friends, because one day, like we just found out, it can come to an end really quickly. All I can say is that we’ll be family forever.”
Assistant sports editor Chris Negrini and staff writers Dean Bibens and Dan Fappiano contributed to this story.