Steve Barlow, Republican-American
CHESHIRE — What World War II, the specter of terrorism after 9/11 and Ebola couldn’t do, the coronavirus has done.
For the first time in its nearly 100-year history, the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference on Tuesday canceled state championships in the sports of boys and girls basketball, boys swimming and ice hockey because of the coronavirus outbreak.
“It’s unprecedented,” said Glenn Lungarini, executive director of the CIAC.
The girls basketball tournaments, which tipped off last week, had already reached the quarterfinal rounds while the boys basketball and hockey tournaments began Monday night with first-round games, and the swimming class championships were scheduled for this weekend.
The CIAC encompasses public schools in the state, as well as some private schools.
“It’s the hardest decision we’ve ever made,” said Lungarini at a news conference Tuesday morning. “We had to think about what was best for our member schools and our student-athletes.”
The CIAC’s decision made Connecticut the first state in the nation to cancel its championship tournaments because of the virus, also known as COVID-19, which has so far infected two people here, far fewer than in other states.
The announcement sparked deep-seated emotions among athletes, coaches and parents around the state.
“I was shocked. I’m really disappointed our season had to end like this,” said Osa Igbinewuare, a senior on the Sacred Heart High boys basketball team, which was ranked No. 1 in the Division I tournament. “All the hard work we put in for the last three months is essentially going to amount to nothing. I understand it’s for safety reasons, but it hurts.”
The CIAC has been awarding state titles continuously in boys basketball since 1923, in girls basketball since 1974, in boys swimming since 1973 and in hockey since 1964.
The finals in boys and girls basketball had been scheduled for the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville for March 21 and March 22, with the hockey finals March 19, 23 and 24 at Yale’s Ingalls Rink in New Haven. The class swim meets were to be held March 17-18 and the State Open on March 21 at Yale and Wesleyan.
State champions were already crowned this winter in wrestling, indoor track, gymnastics, dance and cheerleading.
Lungarini said the CIAC, which governs high school sports in the state, made the decision based on input from the state departments of health and education as well as some of its member school districts.
One school informed the CIAC on Monday that it would not be participating in the tournaments after that day and other schools also pulled out Tuesday, according to Lungarini, who did not name the schools.
Schools rely on their local health districts for guidance on how to deal with the virus, and some were receiving conflicting advice, Lungarini noted.
“For example, we may have one school heading to a tournament game where their local department of health says ‘it’s OK to have less than a hundred people there.’ We may have the school they’re playing saying ‘you can’t play if there’s any fans in attendance,’” Lungarini said. “And so there’s that possibility of conflicting guidelines. So, we felt it was important for us to take the initiative of giving a directive of how to handle this for our schools. Shutting down our tournaments we saw as a clear direction and guideline.”
In this area, officials for the Torrington and Chesprocott health districts said they had not told local high schools to stop holding games or limit attendance. A call to the Waterbury Department of Health was not returned, but school officials in the city said they had not been advised to cancel games.
The CIAC’s top brass met every day for the past week to discuss its response to the virus. On Monday, the CIAC released a statement saying it was monitoring the situation and discussing how to proceed.
The decision to abort the tournaments was made Tuesday morning.
“There are a lot of unknowns about the COVID-19 virus here in Connecticut,” Lungarini said. “We don’t know exactly how far this will spread.”
The CIAC considered playing games without fans, but decided a shutdown was the best option.
“We’ve focused on what is the clearest direction to our member schools,” Lungarini said. “This is the clearest direction we can make.”
New York, which had 174 cases of coronavirus as of Tuesday, and Massachusetts, which had 92, are continuing to play their state tournaments.
Tournaments in those states are further along. New York is playing its regional championships this week with the basketball and hockey finals next week; Massachusetts’ finals are planned for this weekend.
“We’re staying the course at this time, but obviously we’re closely monitoring the situation,” said Robert Zayas, executive director of the New York State Public High School Athletic Association.
“We respect (the CIAC) decision, but at this point we have no changes,” said Tara Bennett, director of communications for the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association.