'Kind of a gut punch': Schools and teams adjust to new crowd limits for state basketball tournaments

'Kind of a gut punch': Schools and teams adjust to new crowd limits for state basketball tournaments

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Class A: Fremont vs. Norfolk, 3.10.2016

Norfolk fans try to distract a Fremont free-throw shooter during the fourth quarter of a Class A boys state tournament first-round game at Pinnacle Bank Arena in March 2016.

There's been a lot of buzz surrounding the Hastings boys basketball team after it punched their first boys state tournament ticket since 2004.

The coaches and players have received texts and notes and their social media accounts have gotten more active.

Shirts were purchased and printed, youth teams were scheduled to attend and a lot of people wearing black and orange were set for a drive on Interstate 80.

Those plans changed late Wednesday morning when the NSAA, under the recommendation of the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department, announced crowd restrictions for state tournament, which begin Thursday across Lincoln.

Only immediate family members of the players and coaches will be allowed into arenas and high schools. The move comes amid concerns over the spread of the coronavirus.

"It's no fault of anybody's, but it's really kind of a gut punch, I guess you could say," Hastings coach Lance Creech said.

Wednesday was "anarchy," one coach said.

The NSAA announcement came late in the morning, and the 48 participating schools spent a good chunk of the day adjusting travel arrangements on the fly.

In addition to getting teams prepared for first-round games, coaches and administrators spent a good part of the evening and night compiling lists of family members allowed to enter.

Lincoln Christian coach Gary Nunnally said the school used Google Docs to put together their list of immediate family members.

For multiple hours, families faced a lot of unknowns about who would be able to attend. Creech said one player had grandparents flying in from California, and they were in limbo a bit. Hastings administrators spent the late afternoon reaching out to families.

At Ogallala, four hours west of Lincoln, the school held a send-off for the team at 8:30 a.m. and then community members began to make their way to Lincoln before the announcement was made.

The state basketball tournaments can often times serve as the highlight of the year for many communities. There are towns like Wahoo, which tends to paint the Devaney Sports Center blue and gold on a yearly basis. The Warriors are scheduled to play Mount Michael at 10:45 a.m. at Pinnacle Bank Arena.

"It's just a great sporting event in the state of Nebraska and the city of Wahoo has a large passion for athletics in general, and unfortunately those decisions aren't under our control and we just got to proceed going forward," Wahoo activities director Robert Barry said.

For the city of Hastings, this was expected to be a big weekend. Two schools from the city are heading to the tournament. Adams Central is in the Class C-1 field.

"Basically your entire community was going to go down," Creech said.

Norris had one of the largest student showings at last week's girls state tournament, and activities director Mitchell Stine said the school was expecting similar attendance for Thursday's 9 a.m. game against top-ranked Omaha Skutt.

Stine said the kids are disappointed, but they understand the decision.

"You just try to be sympathetic, whether you're an adult, whether you're a parent, whether you're a kid, you're disappointing in the news," Stine said. 

He added the school is hoping to stream the game onto TVs.

"You try to tell them there's many ways to support the team as this point," Stine added. "Send them a text, reaching out to them in person, phone call, all those social media media ways to try to be supportive of them. There's many ways to be supportive, it's just going to look a little bit different than what we have planned on, and that's unfortunate but at the same time that's what's being asked of us and that's what we'll do."

In the midst of juggling added duties Wednesday, coaches also needed to get their teams ready for the state tournament. Though they'll be playing in mostly empty arenas and gyms, there remains a big motivator.

"I know our community is pretty bummed and I think our kids, they were pretty bummed at first, but I like told them, there's 20-plus teams in Class B that would love to have this kind of a dilemma right now," Cheech said. "We still have an opportunity to go the state tournament. Our goal that we set in November is still intact."

Said Nunnally, "There's some disappointment for our guys not being able to experience a state tournament the same way. At the same time, we have talked about playing for an audience of one and that our audience is our Heavenly Father, so we get a chance to really test our hearts and see if that true."

The 1995 boys basketball tournament, revisited 25 years later:

Reach Clark Grell at 402-473-2639 or cgrell@journalstar.com. On Twitter at @LJSSportsGrell.

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