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‘I watched like 5 minutes of basketball’

Inside the decision to keep the Iowa High School Athletic Association State basketball tournament running

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Tuesday, March 10 might be remembered as the last normal day that Chris Cuellar had at his office.

On that day, the second day of the Iowa High School Athletic Association State basketball tournament, all scheduled games went off without any major problems. But lurking in the background was a world pandemic that would soon disrupt everything.

“Monday and Tuesday it was in the news that this might be an issue,” Cuellar said about the COVID-19 pandemic that was starting to disrupt the sports world.

Cuellar is the Communications Director for the IHSAA who was down in the Wells Fargo Arena making sure that the State tournament games were running on schedule and everything was going according to plan.

He had, of course, seen some of the breaking news items with the Ivy League cancelling their conference championship in NCAA division I play. At the time that was the only conference that had called off play due to the novel coronavirus.

Wednesday was when everything seemed to turn on its head. That day the NCAA announced that their championships would be played in front of empty arenas. Conference championships started to make similar decisions.

Cuellar, and the IHSAA had to make a decision about the State tournament. The semi-finals were scheduled to start on Wednesday. So, they started to seek out advice from people that could help them make a decision one way or another.

“Discussions were made in earnest on Wednesday (about how to proceed with the tournament),” Cuellar said. “Tuesday we tried to get early guidance, but we didn’t get too much feedback. Wednesday we started to talk to the governor and the Iowa Public Health. We were in touch every hour with those two offices it was an ongoing conversation.”

Games continued through Wednesday as scheduled, but Wednesday night the sports world seemed to collapse around the IHSAA.

In the National Basketball Association Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19. The scheduled game between the Jazz and Thunder was immediately canceled. Soon the NBA season was put on hold. Other sports leagues seemed to be hanging in the balance.

It was when that news broke that Cuellar, and the rest of the IHSAA started to look at their remaining schedule.

“Thursday morning we knew that the tournament was in jeopardy or might be adjusted by forces outside our control,” Cuellar said. “We had to consult with our Board, but all the decisions wasn’t easy. We had to talk to people that hadn’t been told anything about the outbreak. We had people wondering why we are thinking about pulling the plug on our basketball tournament when they are still having school.”

Thursday the tournament continued without any interruptions. Around the same time the tipoff for the class 1A and 2A third place games took place, the NCAA basketball tournaments came to a screeching halt. Just about every conference that was playing put an immediate end to their tournament. Before noon the NHL season, MLB spring training and the start of the season were suspended.

A decision had to be made before the class 3A and 4A semi-finals started. Cuellar was keeping an eye, as best he could on everything that was happening.

“I was keeping an eye on everyone else,” Cuellar said, mentioning that he was in an email chain with other state associations which were updating their situations. “I was getting emails by the second from other states. We were looking at states that were similar to us. We had to make the best decision we had at the time.”

The decision on Thursday was to keep the tournament going with fans.

Soon a conversation changed the outlook for the final day of the tournament.

It was suggested to the IHSAA that they close off the stands to immediate family members and only a limited number of media.

Because of how fast everything changed, Cuellar, who usually can be found on the sidelines during the State basketball tournament had a limited view of games for this year’s tournament.

“I watched like five minutes of basketball,” Cuellar said about the games Wednesday and Thursday. “We were in meetings and calls the whole time. It has been stressful.”

There was some backlash that the IHSAA played until Thursday with full stands, but Cuellar said that given the information they had at the time, they made the decision that made the most sense.

“We made a proactive decision,” Cuellar said about his thoughts about continuing the tournament. “The only state in the country that had no restrictions on their basketball tournament was Montana. We were among 10 or 11 states that were able to play until Thursday without restrictions.”

Thursday night the IHSAA went ahead and closed off the stands to most fans for the remaining third place games and championship games.

Friday was a surreal day for Cuellar. It didn’t hit him until the 3A State championship game between Norwalk and Sergeant Bluff-Luton.

In recent seasons the class 3A and 4A finales had been among the most well attended. For those two games on Friday the games were limited to just 100 fans from each school.

Despite the lack of attendance something remarkable happened.

“With no crowd there we had the highest scoring finals at Wells Fargo Arena by a long shot,” Cuellar said.

The average score of the State champions in four games was 69 points. The second-place teams averaged 60 points per game.

During Wednesday night Cuellar dug into the archives of the IHSAA to see if there was any precedent he could reference if he would have had to cancel the remainder of the tournament. He didn’t find any time the basketball State championship had been canceled, with one slight exception.

“From 1941-45 the tournament had a limited number of qualifiers because of fuel rations that were in place for WWII,” Cuellar said. “So because of those rations we limited how far a team could travel. Other than that we have not had an interruption at the State basketball tournament.”

One thing that could be a saving grace of sorts for the IHSAA, was a shorter more compact basketball tournament. In years past the tournament had been a Monday-Saturday tournament.

In 2019 the tournament was shortened to Monday-Friday. This year the more compact schedule helped.

“We wrapped up the tournament on Friday. By Saturday we couldn’t have finished the tournament because Friday night Gov. Kim Reynolds had put restrictions on groups of 250 or more people gathering together,” Cuellar said.

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