In Familiar Fashion, COVID-19 Puts a Stop to Promising Athletic Endeavors

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Sound familiar?

Last March, Saline's swim and dive team was prepping for the state meet while another Hornet team, fresh off a district championship, was preparing for the regional final and a chance to go to the state semifinals.

And then COVID-19 pulled the rug out from under them. That's what happened to the boys' swim and dive team and the girls' basketball team last March.

And, today, it's what happened to the girls swim and dive team and the football team. The Saline girls swim and dive team was scheduled to compete in the state finals at Hudsonville Friday and Saturday. The football team, fresh off Friday's district championship victory over Holt, was scheduled to play Rockford in the regional championship.

The Michigan High School Athletic Association today suspended its fall tournaments for girls volleyball, girls swimming & diving and football. The MHSAA also suspended all winter practices and competitions scheduled to begin over the next three weeks. The announcements came after a new Michigan Department of Health and Human Services health order to limit the spread of COVID-19.

“We understand the need for action, and we will explore all options to complete our Fall tournaments when restrictions are lifted. We will assess everything over the next three weeks relative to fall and winter sports and come up with a plan that keeps us connected to our goal, for months, of having three seasons that are played to their conclusions,” said MHSAA Executive Director Mark Uyl.

Nobody knows how long this pause will last. On March 12, the day before Coach Todd Brunty and the boys swim and dive team was going to the state meet, the winter season tournaments were postponed indefinitely. Brunty also coaches the girls team.

"We are pretty devastated, especially for the four seniors who were going to compete in the state meet this weekend," Brunty said. "But because it happened to the boys' team the day before the state championships, I knew as coaches we had to do our best to prepare them for the possibility that it could happen to them at any time. In fact, I told them on the first day of practice to expect it."

Brunty said the girls accepted that possibility and used it to their benefit.

"They trained every day and competed in every meet with the mindset that it may be their last. They focused on each other, the life lessons that the sport of swimming teaches, and the lifelong friendships that are forged by being part of a high school team," Coach Brunty said. "I am very proud of all this team accomplished during this challenging season."

The Hornets weren't favored to win the prize at the state meet this year, but Brunty saw something special in the team.

"I know a championship team when I see one and in my book, these girls are champions," said Brunty, who has coached 7 Saline teams to state championships.

The Saline football team earned the SEC Red trophy. They won the district championship trophy. But there were two more trophies on their to-do list and there's no way to know if they'll have the chance to battle for them.

The Hornets were scheduled to play in the regional championship game Saturday afternoon at Rockford High School.

Coach Joe Palka and his staff are going to do what they've been doing throughout this uncertain season - work as hard as they can to make sure the Hornets are ready if the team gets the opportunity to play.

"I am disappointed we have to pause but understand the reason why. At least the 8 teams left all are in the same boat. Our plan will be to continue to prepare virtually and stay as engaged as possible for what will be a quick turnaround when we resume," Palka said Sunday.

By any reasonable measure the Hornets have already had a season to celebrate. Back in August, it looked like their season might be canceled. When the MHSAA decided to let them play, the Hornets swept through the SEC Red schedule and then won a district championship.

Still, this is a team that ends every post-game huddle by chanting "state champs."

"We have appreciated every opportunity to play and hope for a few more," Palka said.

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