Somewhere, hidden away, are all of the unused North Carolina high school basketball state championship trophies.
As each day passes, the chances are less and less they will ever need to see the light of day, except to be disposed of or repurposed in some way. Also hidden away amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic are the athletes for whom those trophies could have become lifelong heirlooms, physical reminders of the times of their lives. That includes both Farmville Central teams.
The North Carolina High School Athletic Association continued this week to suggest the games originally scheduled for March 14 might still be played, including the 29-2 FC boys seeking a second straight title versus Shelby and the 25-3 girls squaring off against Newton-Conover.
The title contests were among the last things to be postponed that week as much larger sports entities like the National Basketball Association already had announced the indefinite suspensions of their own activities.
All high school sports were put on hold, first until April 6 and then through at least May 18.
For Farmville Central head boys’ coach and athletics director Larry Williford, the increasingly unlikely chance of seeing his team win another title already is changing his perspective on the current team’s legacy. Like everyone else, though, he is still adjusting to a completely different world outside of sports too.
“Weird. Crazy. Scary,” Williford said in describing his view of the last few weeks as businesses, schools and sports have been shuttered by the spreading virus. “Some of the things I’ve seen happen with sports I never thought would happen.”
Nothing is certain in the coronavirus world, and Williford knows that includes a finish to what was, to this point, a magical ride to the title game for the Jaguars after an unbeaten season in 2018-19. The Jags also went undefeated in 2015-16 and won the 2-A championship.
“The high school athletic association, every time they send out an email, which they sent one out (Monday), they’re still holding out hope to play the games,” Williford said. “They say they want to play the games. I have my doubts, but that’s my personal feelings. But unless things are going in a much different direction in the middle of May, I don’t see how we’re going to play the games.
“I hope things are going in a different direction for the sake of our country, but as more of this is unfolding the last couple of weeks, the one thing that it’s done for me personally is that it’s brought everything into perspective.”
Part of that, naturally, was seeing the NBA and other pro sports leagues, college basketball and the Olympics all pull the plug. Williford said it is ultimately a reminder that COVID-19 is about much more than basketball or the town of Farmville.
The coach echoed most when he said his main focus now is getting through the pandemic and helping people despite limited abilities to do so with no contact and a statewide stay-at-home order.
The situation forces players to work out strictly on their own, without gyms, coaching or teammates. That factor also could contribute to a decision to scrap the championship games instead of forcing them to be played months after the last real game action.
“You’ve got these student-athletes who are in the best shape of their life, and now, there’s nowhere for them to go and work out,” Williford said. “There’s no Boys & Girls Club, there is no YMCA, there is no rec center. You take a kid like (star guard) Terquavion (Smith), or basically everybody on my whole team, they play every day, seven days a week for probably the last seven years. Now, unless they’ve got a basketball goal at their house, they’ve gone from an elite athlete to a sedentary lifestyle.”
Williford thinks the title games, if still played, could be noticeably different than they would have been at the end of the traditional flurry of playoff games that teams must win every few days to get to that stage.
“There would be so many factors that would be so much different if you were to play the game (in May or later) than if you would have played it on the date that it was set for,” he said, comparing the three-games-per-week grind of the state playoffs to an NBA schedule. “Now, boom, you’re put in the freezer until a date that no one even knows when it’s going to come.”
The Jaguars’ experience in the days leading up to the suspension of the championship games in Chapel Hill was a microcosm of the world around them. Much like everyone else, the Jags have been left waiting since then.
“The previous night, we were practicing over at East Carolina on the main floor in the arena, trying to get one more practice in,” Williford said, noting that Minges Coliseum was a perfect venue to help his players adjust to the different depth perception of playing in larger gyms like the Dean Smith Center. “We went out to eat that night, had a great steak dinner at Texas Roadhouse, and everyone was happy. Then, the next morning, everything starts changing.”
First, Williford had to tell his team the title games would be played without fans and with only limited support staff. Hours later, he was telling them they wouldn’t be playing at all, at least not that day and not anytime soon.
“That whole 10-hour period, there was so much uncertainty,” the coach said. “It was hard for me to grasp, and I know it was hard for a 15-, 16- or 17-year-old to.”
The uncertainty looms even larger now, as does the reality that with mid-summer events like the Tokyo Games already wiped out, there will be more pressure than ever to make similar decisions about prep basketball championships and spring sports seasons alike.
Unfortunately for the hoops teams left in limbo this spring, the answer of who the state champs are seems unlikely to come, forcing everyone, especially seniors poised to possibly finish their careers with a title, to view things differently than they ever have previously.
“You still want it for those guys, to have that last chance to say that they played in that game,” Williford said of the Jaguars, who went a perfect 32-0 last season and were rarely challenged on their way to the crown. “Twenty years from now, they’ll look back and say, ‘Man, we had a hell of a run for two years.’ But right now, everywhere I go, everyone wants to know when we’re going to play. I bet I got asked 10 times yesterday at the store buying groceries, and I’m trying to stay away from people.
“I’m biased, but I think without a doubt that we’ll look back on it and say this is one of the best two-year runs of any high school basketball boys’ program in a long, long time,” said Williford, whose team’s only losses this season came against powerhouses: Millbrook from Raleigh and the Patrick School from Hillside, N.J.