HUDSON, Wis. -- By all rights, Hudson senior Paige Hillman should be competing for a medal at the WIAA Girls State Golf Tournament this week. Instead, she’s learned the hard way just how random and cruel the fight to contain the COVID-19 virus can be.
Hillman is coming off a senior season that saw her earn her second straight Big Rivers Conference Player of the Year honor while leading the Raiders to their first BRC team title in 10 years. She finished 14th at last year’s WIAA State Tournament, shooting the second-best score of any player in the tournament on the second day to move up 17 spots in the final individual standings.
She went right back to work over the winter, working on her swing with the aid of a golf simulator in the family garage, and played in a number of Minnesota junior golf summer events before accepting a Division I scholarship offer from the University of Sioux Falls and setting her sights on a return trip to state this fall.
But on Sept. 21, Hillman was informed that she would have to begin a two-week quarantine after contact tracing determined she had been in contact with someone who had tested positive for COVID-19. Her quarantine period would end Tuesday, Oct. 6, the day after the WIAA Division 1 golf sectional in Tomah, meaning Hillman would not even have the opportunity to qualify for that cherished return trip to state.
“It was devastating,” Hillman said. “It was definitely shocking. And our team was undefeated this year and looking at possibly making it to state as a team. So finding out I couldn’t play was definitely heartbreaking and sad.”
Hillman said she never developed any COVID-19 symptoms, and was hoping the negative test results she received Oct. 3 would allow her to play in the Oct. 5 sectional.
“My coaches and parents were emailing the WIAA and county to see if there was a possibility they could reduce my quarantine by just a day so I would be able to play on Monday,” she said. “They thought about it a little bit, but they said they have to stick to the protocol.”
Hillman said even her teammates were trying to figure out ways to help, and have continued to support her throughout her ordeal.
“They’ve been very supportive,” she said. “I know they were sad and disappointed, but they’re trying to help as much as possible.”
Without Hillman in the lineup, the Raiders finished sixth at the sectional tournament, short of the top-two finish they would need to qualify for the state tournament as a team for the first time since 2008.
Hillman said she knew the threat of the coronavirus would make this season different from any other, but she knew the Raiders had a special team this season and hoped they’d have the chance to live up to their potential.
“I never thought it would happen to one of us, that we would have to quarantine,” she said “So it’s kind of devastating that it did happen to us during one of our best years as a team.”
To make matters worse, the Tomah sectional was one of just two of the seven sectionals across the state that was played on Monday. The other five were played either Tuesday or Wednesday, including the Division 2 sectional in Rice Lake that included local Middle Border Conference teams St. Croix Central, Somerset, Ellsworth and Prescott.
“So if our sectional had been Tuesday or Wednesday I could have played,” Hillman noted.
She said the first few days after learning she would miss the sectional were tough to process. But since ending quarantine she’s been able to find peace at a place she loves -- the golf course.
“I’ve been out at the range and playing a lot of golf,” she said. “I just want to keep working and get better for next year and college. Even though I wasn’t given the chance to play at state, it’s still nice to know I’m getting better.”
Hillman is also trying to adhere to the same advice she would give any other student-athlete who is trying to navigate the randomness and complexities of life during a pandemic.
“Just stay positive and keep working towards your goals,” she said. “And hope you don’t come into contact with anyone.”