NEW RICHMOND -- About an hour after the New Richmond football team finished practice Thursday, Nov. 12, head coach Reggie Larson had to deliver some sobering news to his players -- the Tigers first round playoff game against Ashland the following day was being cancelled.
“That was a really hard email for me to send out to our kids,” Larson said. “We just went into full remote learning on Monday, so this was going to be the last night we were going to see each other for quite some time. Then to open up your email to find out your last game has been cancelled? That’s something I’ve really struggled with.”
Larson said the decision to cancel was a joint one, considering the increase in quarantine and contact tracing at both New Richmond and Ashland in the week leading up to the game.
The state Department of Health Services ranked COVID-19 transmission levels in both St. Croix County and Ashland County as “critically high” Friday. One day earlier St. Croix County reported 145 new cases, the highest since tracking began March 19, to bring the county total to 3,168 confirmed or probable cases, while Ashland County reported a total of 476.
“We were a little concerned that our administration was going to let us play,” Larson said. “So we got a hold of their head coach and we both just said let’s not do it, and it made a lot of sense.”
New Richmond wasn’t the only area team sidelined due to coronavirus concerns Friday night. Hudson’s Level 1 playoff game against D.C. Everest was cancelled due to a spike in cases in the Wausau area, while River Falls pulled the plug in its season in adherence with WIAA guidelines three weeks ago. Hudson is scheduled to host Wisconsin Rapids in a Level 2 playoff game this Thursday night.
According to Travis Wilson of Wisconsin Sports Network, 37 of the 122 high school football games scheduled for last week were cancelled due to concerns about the coronavirus.
Larson pointed to the NFL and college as also having issues handling the pandemic, but he said it’s especially hard to see at the high school level.
“Those guys will be OK,” he said. “The NFL players will be OK. High school kids, some of these kids this all they have. It’s the reason they go to school, it’s the reason they stay up on their schoolwork. And if they don't have it, you’re going to lose kids. And you might not get them back. And I think that’s a tough pill for a lot of people to swallow, and I think its a conversation a lot of people don’t want to have.”
Adding to Larson’s frustration is that transmission of the virus isn’t happening on the athletic field. A study released by the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Medicine and Public Health last month suggests that the state’s high school sports have not caused an increase in COVID-19 infections among athletes. The university surveyed 207 schools that restarted fall sports in September, representing more than 30,000 athletes, more than 16,000 practices and more than 4,000 games, and found just one case attributed to participation in sports.
“You’re just at a loss of words because you tell these kids, hey be smart on the weekends, follow all the protocols when you’re here, take a little chill pill on your social life so we can get through this thing,” Larson said. “Then for them to do everything right and then to still have someone else who’s not necessarily as vested or whatever it might be, have the virus. And they have to get contact tracing knowing they did everything correct? That’s a hard pill to swallow.”
He said it’s been heart-wrenching seeing the reaction from his student-athletes.
“I’ve had kids reach out to me to express their gratitude, and I think a lot of them are starting to see the writing on the wall that hey, winter sports might not be a sure thing,” he said. “I think some of them are starting to put two and two together and they’re like, oh boy, that might be it for my entire high school career. That’s the hard part, and that’s the part they're struggling with.”
He said the student-athletes are doing everything they can to stay on the field, but can’t do it alone.
“It can’t be the 10 percent of the school that plays athletics or else it’s not going to work for anyone,” he said. “It’s going to take an effort from everybody to make some sacrifices, and maybe make some lifestyle changes for the betterment of the world really.”
Larson said he knew going in it was going to be a challenging time for high school sports, and he’s just grateful the Tigers were able to get in as many games as they did.
“If you would have told me we were going to get six games in at the beginning of the year, I would have said sign me on the bottom line because I never would have thought we would get that far,” he said. “And overall I think we had a good year in the Big Rivers. I think that’s what our seniors are going to have to hang their hat on.”