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Illinois Basketball Team Experiences Ups, Downs of Return to Play

By Lindsey Atkinson on May 10, 2021 hst Print

The NFHS 2020 Fall Sports Season Guide – a color-coded map – resided on the homepage of the NFHS website (www.nfhs.org) most of the fall and depicted the ever-changing status of competition across the country. Approximately 30 states were shaded grey and conducting fall competition in accordance with local health department guidance. Six blue states were able to compete, but without state finals. No state association, coach, official, student-athlete or high school fan wanted to see their state colored red. Those 16 states delayed their entire fall season. Most were found in clusters – on the West coast – Washington, Oregon, California and Nevada -- and on the East coast – Maine, Vermont, New York, Rhode Island, just to name a few. The only state in the Midwest shaded in the dreaded red was Illinois.

Tuscola (Illinois) High School basketball coach Justin Bozarth experienced with his athletes the mental and emotional stress of the ever-changing decisions regarding competition in the state of Illinois.

“It seemed like, basically since last March, high school sports in the state of Illinois were just start, stop, start, stop as far as what you could and couldn’t do,” Bozarth said.

Bozarth, like many coaches around the country, rolled with the punches. In June, summer outdoor conditioning opened and the coaches at Tuscola got organized. Risk mitigation strategies like face masks and social distancing were enforced.

“There was a coach assigned to each group of about six people,” Bozarth said. “It was all bodyweight workouts – stuff that you could do outside just on our track and on our football field. We got pretty creative with what we were able to do with our own bodyweight, and then at one point, it all stopped. And then in July, they let us use the gym for like a day or two before that got stopped again.”

As a high school guidance counselor, Bozarth noticed the impact that a complete lack of opportunity for both athletic and activity- based participation had on the Tuscola High School community.

“Our kids love Tuscola High School, but the majority of the reasons why they love it is because of the activities that they get to do while they’re at Tuscola High School,” Bozarth said. “So, yes, we were still getting to come to school, but all of those extracurricular activities – whether it be our sports or fall play or band and choir – students couldn’t go out and perform. All of those activities that our kids love, were pulled out from underneath them. So, it was challenging, because what we noticed is, we have this school culture of kids getting excited about going and rooting on their classmates and support them in whatever activity. And we didn’t have any of that.”

While the school culture suffered through the fall with limited opportunities for students to socialize let alone participate in sports or activities, the administration was busy planning, replanning and contingency planning.

“Our poor athletic director (Ryan Hornaday), I think he did our basketball schedule four different times this year,” Bozarth said. “We had our normal year, then we had this abbreviated year we thought we were only going to play – then that got wiped out. Then he did it again and that changed. I think in total, he did our total basketball schedule four times this year. It was way more work on him than it was on a sport-specific coach like myself.”

Hornaday and athletic directors across the state went through that same scenario with each sport in 2020-21 – taking in and processing the communication from state and local leaders, planning for the return to competition and adjusting to the decisions of the day. All of this preparation soon paid off on Friday, January 29, 2021 when Tuscola High School hosted one of the first boys basketball games since the pandemic shut down IHSA competition in March of 2020.

“Our principal, Steve Fiscus, and athletic director, Ryan Hornaday, have been some of the leaders around the state of Illinois, as far as getting stuff prepared,” Bozarth said. “They had plans and contingency plans for every potential scenario that may come about and that’s part of the reason why we were one of the first to be ready to play. They had the foresight and the vision to get our kids back to it as quickly as we could.”

Tuscola High School basketball would look a little different in 2021. Rules modifications meant no jump ball or post-game highfives. State mandates required masking of all spectators and participants. Spectator limitations meant limited attendance by friends and family. Finally, general risk mitigation strategies meant no locker room access and temperature checks at the door.

Through all the uncertainty of the 2020-21 school year, Bozarth feels that the students at Tuscola High School received true-to-life experiences in the power of effective communication and the importance of handling adversity.

“I would say kids especially learned a valuable life lesson on the importance of communication, and how important it is to be an effective communicator,” Bozarth said. “There was so much going on way above what we could control. And there were at times, probably what the kids would describe as a lack of communication.”

As active members in the communication chain, student-athletes were able to experience both the good and bad of communication – how it can be an extremely effective tool to inform and how it can be mishandled or not even used and create confusion.

“I think the most important lesson that the kids learned was being able to overcome adversity in the unknown,” Bozarth said. “You have to be able to control what it is that you can control. And then life is going to throw you obstacles and hurdles. You can either decide, okay, what can I do to control this to get over that obstacle, or I can decide, I’m just going to let it sit in front of me as a roadblock, and I’m never going to do anything to get over it.”

It is clear from leadership demonstrated by Bozarth and the entire Tuscola High School Administration that adversity is best overcome when you take control over what you can control and plan, plan, plan for all that could be thrown your way.