KSHSAA Class 6A state tournament

Emotionally and physically gassed by a double-overtime win over SM Northwest, Derby’s players stormed their locker room on Wednesday, March 11, as they earned a fourth-straight state semifinal appearance.

Its postgame celebration music blared through the lower hallways of Koch Arena. One by one, players left to either meet the training staff, head home or watch the final two games of the Class 6A state quarterfinals.

Scrolling through Twitter as she prepped for the upcoming evening’s semifinal, senior Sydney Nilles’ jaw dropped at the sight of a tweet from the Kansas State High School Activities Association (KSHSAA).

The announcement by KSHSAA put an end to all state tournaments following the conclusion of the quarterfinal round.

“… Given the escalating concerns regarding COVID-19, the best decision for the safety of the student-athletes and spectators was to cancel the remainder of this championship tournament. The KSHSAA regrets the lost opportunity for teams and players that have worked to achieve their goals.”

“I was not expecting any of this to happen,” Nilles said. “It hit me so hard [when the news broke]… not knowing that Wednesday was my last game in a Lady Panther jersey.”

While expected to a degree, others wondered why stop the tournament after already starting it the day before?

All options were on the table as of 8:15 p.m. the evening prior. However, KSHSAA executive director Bill Faflick said the “State of Emergency” declaration by Kansas Governor Laura Kelly and the death of a 70-year-old Wyandotte County resident were the final straws.

“That helped put things in perspective regarding what was going on in Kansas,” Faflick said. “Our basketball championships are really important, but when you have that [declaration] by the governor, it’ll trump just about anything else that is going on.”

Nilles spread the news quickly to her teammates, sending a message through their group chat. Coach Jodie Karsak was also a part of this text chain.

The immediacy of the information perplexed the longtime Lady Panther coach, but it sunk in once she received a call from Derby High School activities director Russell Baldwin.

“At that point, I was kind of like the momma hen with all her little chicks,” Karsak said. “I wondered how I would be able to protect the kids from [the news]. I really couldn’t though and I needed to let them digest it and work through the difficulty, pain and emotion of it themselves.”

At the same time, players began processing the realization that they had played their last game together just over 24 hours earlier.

“I’m so proud of my team and all we accomplished this season,” senior Heather Mills said. “I know what we were capable of … I’m so sad we couldn’t finish it out. I love my team, and the way we came together even after we got this devastating news truly shows how close we are and how much we love each other.”

The reality of what had taken place over the last two days still hadn’t fully clicked for Karsak.

A self-described “book nerd,” the longtime Derby coach said the narrative fit more of a fictional plot line than a real life tale.

Following the completion of an early dismissal on Friday at Derby High School, Karsak, coaches and players assembled in their locker room to process what had occurred.

“I tell the girls often, ‘basketball isn’t who we are, but it’s what we get to do,’” Karsak said. “When you have something taken away … it’s disappointing because we don’t get to do what we love, but it’s not disappointing because it defines who I am. So hopefully that helped a little bit.”

The emotions were heavy, but it was a much-needed debrief upon hearing their season had been cut short.

“We were fired up because we really believed this team could go and win it all,” she said. “We were playing the way we needed to play, but of course, it was going to be a tough road.”

Three day priors to the weekend interview, Karsak had watched her four seniors embark in their fourth and final state tournament.

The class’s accomplishments were significant, winning 87 of 96 games and claiming the last three AVCTL-I championships. By winning Wednesday’s game against SM Northwest, the school also became just the seventh in Class 6A history to reach the state semifinals four or more times.

In their game against the Cougars, the Lady Panthers donned bright green t-shirts, carrying the black bolded words “STAY TOGETHER” across the back.

While initially driven toward a state-championship pursuit, the words took on new meaning as they saw their season abruptly finish without a completed state tournament.

“We can’t take things for granted,” Karsak said. “On a lesser scale … it was a loss. You have those feelings of grief that can come with a loss and when we do lose someone in our lives, it gives us great perspective that nothing is guaranteed. We had a really great talk about it.”

Speaking to Faflick four days after the announcement, the full implications of the decision had not yet been felt. Understanding the significance of what had been diagnosed in and around Johnson County, he reiterated the importance of being one step ahead of COVID-19.

“Championships are significantly important, but community and student health will always win,” Faflick added.

Two of Kansas’ neighboring states (Oklahoma and Colorado) canceled tournaments on the same day. Nebraska wrapped up its nine-day schedule of games on Saturday, March 14. Missouri canceled its remaining Class 4 and 5 games on Monday, March 16.

What was it that gave KSHSAA executive directors the peace of mind that quarterfinals were safe to be played?

Faflick brought up the Big 12 Tournament in Kansas City, which saw Oklahoma State, Iowa State, Kansas State and TCU all play on Wednesday, March 11 at the Sprint Center.

Just 12 hours later, Texas Tech and Texas were on the court warming up when they were asked to leave the arena.

“No one other than the kids themselves feels more remorse than the staff here,” Faflick said. “We work so hard to have these quality experiences for our kids, but weren’t able to see this one through to the end. I have never been part of any type of situation that was so fluid and changing hourly.”

With the announcement of the cancellation, KSHSAA capped its basketball season without state champions for the first time since 1930. Faflick said staff has been examining different options to honor the 48 remaining teams.

“Our staff started thinking through that Thursday night [after the announcement],” Faflick said. “… We want to put some things in place to celebrate the 48 teams that made it to the semifinals because they are to be congratulated on a fabulous year.”