MINNEAPOLIS — The Henning High School girls basketball team, fresh off the program’s first state tournament win, had just completed a shoot-around practice at the University of St. Thomas Friday morning, March 13 — thinking they were poised to win their 2 p.m. Minnesota Class 1A semifinal game.
But after piling onto the bus to go back to the hotel, Henning head coach Michael Hepola got a call on his cell phone from a number he did not recognize.
“I thought, 'This can’t be good,'” Hepola said.
It wasn’t. Hepola was informed by an official from the Minnesota State High School League that all tournaments — including the one Henning was playing in — were going to be canceled immediately due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Hepola whispered the news to his assistant coaches. Then he stood up and broke the news to his players.
“Well girls … I’m about to cry here,” Hepola announced. “The tournament has been canceled.”
There were lots of tears. Lots of emotion.
Not only was the season over for Henning’s girls basketball team, it was also over for Henning’s boys team — who had just won the Class 1A, Section 8 championship Thursday night to advance to next week’s state tournament. The boys will not get a chance to defend the state championship it won last year.
Ironically, Henning boys head coach Randy Misegades, his wife, son and some players were on their way to Minneapolis to watch the girls play when they heard the news. There were tears shed in the vehicle that included Misegades, his wife, two sons and players Parker Fraki, Blake Wallevand and Tanner Arndt.
They were on the list of 90 fans who were to be allowed to watch the Henning girls semifinal game Friday. It was all part of the MSHSL’s decision made Thursday to limit fan participation.
“I go back-and-forth to being angry, but there is really no one to be angry at,” Misegades said over the phone, as he and his group were grabbing lunch in Albertville before returning home. “There is not anyone to blame, it’s just unfortunate.”
Misegades’ boys team, with a 29-1 record, was expecting to be seeded No. 1 for next week’s state tournament. But even before Thursday night’s section title game at Concordia, Misegades — sensing the state tournament could be canceled — gathered his team together alerting them that this could be their last game of the season.
“I told them that we have to treat this game like this is our state championship,” said Misegades, whose team went on to beat West Central Area 57-45. “It’s really a shame because probably in my lifetime, you won’t see both our boys and girls teams go to the state tournament again in the same year — both with high hopes of doing well.”
Hepola agreed, calling it a special winter.
“Hopefully in a couple days we can look back at it and say we didn’t lose at state,” he said. “And ended our season with a win. Not many teams can say that.”
Misegades said “at least our boys and girls got to play section championship games” — unlike the boys teams from Perham, Fergus Falls and Ada-Borup.
Perham and Fergus Falls were scheduled to play each other Friday night at Concordia for the Class 2A, Section 8 championship.
“It’s gut-wrenching and ripped everything out of my heart, not only for me, but for those seniors who didn’t get a chance to play in a possible state tournament and section championship game,” said Perham head coach Dave Cresap, whose team had a 28-0 record. “It’s just devastating news, but unavoidable with all the health concerns going on. I get that part, but you have to feel for these kids. In my 35 years, this is one of the closest-knit teams I have had and they are completely devastated. We had a little meeting and it was a really sad day.”
Perham senior Charlie Rasmussen said it was an unreal feeling when they found out their season was going to be cut short.
“We all worked so hard for this and it is what we have dreamt of for 16, 17 and 18 years. Every day at practice we are grinding,” Rasmussen said. “It’s hard seeing a lot of us in tears, ending the way it did. We are not alone, this is statewide, nationwide. This is tough.”
Rasmussen moved to Perham his eighth-grade year and moved into a leadership role during his career with the Yellowjackets. The 65-62 section semifinal victory over East Grand Forks marked the final time he would share the floor with seniors Carter Aakre, Landon Stevens, Ryan Murphy, Gavin Hillukka, Jordan Muench, Gunnar Anderson and Judd Soule.
“Them just taking me in and as my role increased in the program, they really accepted me and they brought me in,” Rasmussen said. “Our chemistry was unbelievable. Some can say it’s one of the best teams Perham has ever had. We were unbeaten and it’s crazy.”
Ada-Borup was scheduled to play Cass Lake-Bena Friday night in Thief Rivers Falls for the Class 1A, Section 8 championship. Ada-Borup was aiming to reach its second straight trip to state, after losing on a last-second shot in last year’s state semifinals.
“We were going to get back, that was our players’ mentality,” said Ada-Borup head coach Trevor Stewart. “I feel bad for our seniors. But at the same time, a little bit of the unknown with this virus is a bit scary, too. It is what it is.”
On Thursday night, Stewart traveled to Grand Forks to watch his alma mater Hatton-Northwood play in a North Dakota Class B region championship game.
“You saw this coming a little bit, but when I was watching that game in Grand Forks, I thought ‘OK, we can do this even in an empty gym,” Stewart said, referring to the fan restrictions that were going to be placed on Friday night’s section championship game in Thief River Falls. “I hope we can all look back at this some day and say ‘man, did we overreact to all of this.’ But that’s pretty hard to do right now.”