A year ago this spring, Cherry Creek High School basketball star Jana Van Gytenbeek was dazzling spectators at the state playoffs. Her layup off the glass in the closing seconds of the Class 5A Championship was the shot that gave the Bruins a state title.
Fast forward to this year, in March: The Bruins were breezing through the state playoffs and knocking on the door of back to back state titles.
“We had just won the final four and then the day after we were supposed to play in the championship and we got the call,” said Van Gytenbeek, who was the 5A Player of the Year for 2020.
That call was the season being canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It was super devastating. We were all just so sad. We were crying,” she said.
Championship dreams for Kent Denver lacrosse player Max Hewitt were also crushed by an invisible enemy.
Last year, his Sun Devils lost a heartbreaker in the state championship. And this season was canceled the day it was set to start.
“It was kind of one of those deals where they had like a bunch of dates where I could start up again,” said Hewitt, who was an all-american last season. “But I think everyone kinda knew it wasn't going to happen.”
Hewitt was hoping to get another shot at a state title, after back to back years of runner-up finishes.
“I think coming to this year we had a lot of experience, a lot of really good seniors,” he said. “And it was just hard not to be able to play with my friends one more time.”
But that was the reality for Colorado senior student athletes this spring as the Colorado High School Activities Association pulled the plug in the early weeks of the coronavirus outbreak.
“My heart hurt to have to do that,” said CHSAA Commissioner Rhonda Blanford-Green. “And you know it's the right decision, but it still was a somber and sad day for our office that there wasn't going to be a culminating event where we could celebrate with our membership and our kids and our parents.”
The emotional impact of life without high school sports has not only been tough on the students, but also on the communities where games are played. In some parts of Colorado, a Friday night game is the biggest show in town.
“In a lot of places, the high school is the meeting point of the community,” said Adam Bright, an assistant CHSAA commissioner. “It's the shining light of the community. Everybody's proud of what their high school is able to accomplish, whether that's on the field or the type of graduates they're putting out. ... So the high school really becomes the centerpiece of a community.”
It isn’t just the emotional toll. The economic impact of the cancellations is also deeply felt.
Blandford-Green says when CHSAA canceled the state basketball tournaments in places like Denver and Greeley, the fallout had a trickle down effect: Refunding ticket sales, area hotels losing money because room reservations were canceled, empty restaurants near the arenas, and referees unable to work for income they were counting on.
“So it's just a bigger picture of an event being canceled, but [also] the collateral damage that happens around it,” Blanford-Green said.
For CHSAA officials, the focus now turns toward the fall, and what high school sports might look like then. Blanford-Green recently announced the creation of a task force to discuss the potential return of sports next semester. The group will start meeting in June, two months before fall sports typically begin.
Blanford-Green says they’re working on different scenarios and said it would be premature to talk about any plans in the works right now. But whatever happens, the high school sports experience may look and feel a lot different when they resume — and that may include games being played without spectators.
“I think based on our everyday life right now, it would be naive to think that we could just come back to business as usual in August,” Blanford-Green said. “And, and as much as people don't want to hear this, we will not sacrifice the well-being and safety of students, officials, fans for an athletic event or an activity.”
Better Days Ahead
While CHSAA makes plans for next semester, schools are paying tribute to senior student athletes across the state. Every Friday night since sports were canceled in March, many Colorado schools have been lighting up their football fields and gymnasiums as part of a tribute to students called Be The Light.
“We've received numerous messages from people that are driving home late from being at the hospital all day and seeing the lights on at the school as they pull into their neighborhood,” Bright said. “And it reminds them that there's better days ahead, and we're all going to get through this and we'll be back on those fields playing games again soon.”
While seniors who couldn’t finish their final seasons are disappointed, they’re also keeping perspective at a time when lives are being upended by the pandemic.
“My disappointment, it doesn't compare to everything else that was happening in the world,” said Van Gytenbeek. “Had I known how crazy this was going to be and how detrimental it was going to be to everybody, the whole world, then I would have spent less time worried about being selfish because … if you put it in perspective, it's really nothing. There’s people dying and losing people they love.”
“We had a great ride,” Hewitt said of his Sun Devils lacrosse team. “It was really hard not to get another chance at the state championship, but I still have a lot of great memories with it. It's not going to make me look back at my high school career as anything different than what it was. It was a great experience. I loved it the whole way through.”
Van Gytenbeek is headed to Stanford to play basketball. Max Hewitt will soon play lacrosse at Navy.
Then there’s Smoky Hill High School senior Jadon Vaz. He was really excited to finally play varsity baseball this year, but of course the season was canceled.
“I never got the chance to experience hearing my name called at a varsity game,” Vaz said.
Instead of getting depressed, Vaz made a video salute to the Class of 2020. His work has gotten a lot of attention. It was recently featured on “Graduate Together,” a nationally-televised salute to the class of 2020 that former President Obama was a part of.
For the video, Jadon shot footage of students in action at various school events, particularly sporting events. The first half of the video features music and playful teenagers doing goofy things.
But the video takes a solemn turn when it marks the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. And instead of raucous crowds going nuts at basketball games, Vaz features voices of Smoky Hill seniors talking about their future goals and reflections on the class of 2020.
Vaz, who will study video production at Metropolitan State University of Denver in the fall, said he wanted to demonstrate how the senior class maintains hope, “even when life is knocking us to the ground.”
“No other class has had to deal with this,” Vaz said. “This is the first graduating class of high school to deal with this that's alive today. So, I think it's super important to set a standard for what it looks like to be strong during tough times for other people in the future.”