Boys Basketball – A Day Later, Manasquan Still Copes With Abrupt End to Season
Andrew Bilodeau never misses an opportunity to sell his team on an opportunity to prove people wrong.
Those opportunities have been few and far between during the 2019-20 season because his Manasquan boys basketball team proved from an early point that no one in the Shore Conference nor in the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group II section could hang with the Warriors on their best day.
That's why he and his team were so looking forward to March 12. As long as both teams held up their end and won their respective sectional titles, Manasquan and Camden - the latter of which is the No. 1 team in the state, according to NJ Advance Media - would meet in the Group II semifinal and Manasquan would finally get to absorb all the doubt and throw it back in the face of the doubters who thought they could never hang with the state's No. 1 team.
It doesn't always work out that way, and Bilodeau certainly knows that. It didn't work out in 2009 or 2015, when Camden beat the Warriors in the Group II semifinal, or last year, when Manasquan could not solve Haddonfield in the same round of the tournament. It's never easy to console a group of high-school players whose seasons and, in some cases, careers just ended but if any of them needed to come to grips with the reality of the situation, they could always look at the final scoreboard or the game film to help them rationalize it.
On Thursday, though, that job of rationalizing it was even harder. There was no scoreboard to tell Manasquan its season had ended and no game film that showed Camden was just flat-out better. The season ended when Manasquan's Board of Education, on the advice of its school physician, pulled the plug on Thursday's game as a precaution in light of the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak that has shut down just about all major sports in the U.S.
According to Bilodeau, Camden's representation during those discussions between the teams held a similar position but it was Manasquan's BOE that made the initial announcement that its team would be withdrawing and would not be playing in Thursday night's game.
"The kids were devastated," Bilodeau said. "They were looking forward to great challenge, and so was I. There is always a finality to the end of the season, but it shouldn’t come that way.
"I certainly understand. These are people who are the decision-makers and they are acting in best interest of the kids and the school and the community as a whole. It’s a bizarre situation. It’s difficult to deal with and the kids took it really hard. But if this is the worst thing that ever happens to them, they’ve lived a charmed life. It’s raw, a lot of teams are feeling something similar right now, but in the end, this was probably the right decision."
From the time Manasquan defeated Holmdel, 53-38, in Tuesday's Central Jersey Group II championship game in Manasquan, the writing on the wall became clearer and clearer that the anticipated game between the Warriors - ranked No. 6 in the state - and the No. 1 Panthers was unlikely to ever be played.
At the beginning of the week, the NJSIAA had already begun to release daily briefings on the status of the tournament as it pertained to the coronavirus outbreak. Wednesday morning saw the first major change to the tournament, as Rutgers University cancelled all third-party scheduled events on its campus, which meant it would not host the boys Group Finals on March 15.
The NJSIAA moved the site of the finals to Phillipsburg but later that night, Phillipsburg - at the behest of its mayor - informed the state it would not host the event.
While that news threw the tournament into a holding patter, Thursday's wave of developments proved to be its undoing. In the morning, Egg Harbor Township informed the state it would not host the Group IV final between South Brunswick and Atlantic City. South Brunswick schools closed when it was reported two adult residents were being evaluated for coronavirus, sparking a chain of events that led the NJSIAA to cancel the game and for South Brunswick to appeal that the game instead by postponed to a later date.
The next domino to fall was the NJSIAA announcing that no tickets would be sold to any of Thursday's games and fans - including parents - would not be allowed to attend. Shortly thereafter, Hackettstown withdrew from the tournament, which meant the cancellation of the other Group II semifinal between Ramsey and Hackettstown.
Then, at approximately 3:40 p.m. on Thursday, the Manasquan BOE announced on social media that it would be withdrawing from the NJSIAA Boys Basketball Tournament and would not play Camden Thursday night.
"You had host schools pulling out, the two teams pulling out," Bilodeau said. "Us and Camden – to my understanding – got together and more or less decided the game shouldn’t be played.
"The game was a special game. It was a collision course set up in December, and we’re bummed it didn’t happen. But we also both understand the situation our state and our country is in, and with that in mind, the decision was made for what is best for the kids and the fans. We support it, and in reading what (Camden) Coach (Rick) Brunson said, he certainly supported the same sentiment."
Manasquan's caution in a time of uncertainty mirrored decisions of a number of other educational institutions at different levels, but the Manasquan boys basketball team was officially one of only two teams that voluntarily withdrew from the NJSIAA Tournament.
Considering the circumstances surrounding the basketball portion of the narrative, it is somewhat surprising that the Warriors did not play while two other boys teams (Elizabeth and John F. Kennedy Paterson) and all eight girls teams scheduled for Thursday opted to play. The Manasquan-vs.-Camden game was the marquee game in the state scheduled for Thursday considering the rankings of the two teams and had Manasquan been able to win the game, the Warriors could have made a case to be the state's No. 1 team - even with the remainder of the NJSIAA Tournament being cancelled at the conclusion of the final game on Thursday night.
The coach of one of the other boys teams vying for the No. 1 ranking was among those who brought up an argument for the NJSIAA continuing through the weekend, even as other sports leagues were cancelling or suspending their seasons.
"My feeling was that if the NCAA national championship was tomorrow, that they would play it," Roselle Catholic coach Dave Boff told NJ Advance Media. "I understand that they aren’t going to embark on a month-long tournament and start it with this (pandemic) going (on). Our hope was the NJSIAA would allow one more game to be played with no fans to give these teams a chance to win a championship, but they were unable to do that and we understand.”
Bilodeau and Brunson - a former NBA player and father of former Villanova star and current Dallas Mavericks guard Jalen Brunson - did not see as much need for discussion.
"I'm the same as a lot of people, just trying to figure out what the safest thing is to do," Brunson told NJ Advance Media. "I don't know what to do. When the NBA and NCAA cancels things, why are we playing high school basketball?
"I'm worried about the kids' health over a high school game."
Still, for Manasquan's players and particularly for the five seniors, Thursday was an especially bitter pill to swallow considering it was friendly fire that ended their season. It wasn't a bad performance. It wasn't a team that was too good for them to beat. It wasn't even a bad call by an official. It was a group of adults in a position of authority and responsibility who ultimately stepped up and effectively said, "Pursuing your dream is not worth the risk to you and the community and you don't have a say in the matter."
"Everybody wanted to play," Bilodeau said. "Once the medical professionals go on record, it opens your ears and there is really nothing else to do other than to support it. There is no one involved that didn’t want to play. So do the colleges, so do the pros. Look at the NCAA Tournament; for them to shut that down – that’s a multi-million-dollar event. Heck, Disney World just closed."
It is indeed probably the right decision and, as Bilodeau mapped out, most definitely an understandable one considering the potential worse-case scenario should something have gone wrong. But had Manasquan's players seen the headlines of Elizabeth coach Phil Colicchio winning his 500th game, or Colleen McQuillen scoring 28 of Cresskill's 38 points in the girls Group I semifinals, or Ramapo girls earning their first trip to a state final that will never be played, they would have had to wonder: Why did those teams get to play on Thursday night?
To make it even harder for them to comprehend, school was still in session on Friday and after being told they could not play the game they loved, they still had to go to school the next day - even as schools throughout the area prepare for extended closures and online classes. Manasquan even announced Friday that because there is no state mandate to close schools, it plans to open on Monday.
"I don’t know if those basketball-related things were discussed," Bilodeau said. "The number one priority is the people in the building – not only the players but the staffs, managers, referees. Everything was probably weighed. It’s the right decision. It’s a tough one - we would love to have had a chance to play Camden. Maybe we’ll hook up in the offseason somewhere."
For those of us immersed in sports on a day-to-day basis, those are hard questions to answer and difficult decisions to totally justify. Players play hurt against doctors' orders, some even play with a contagious illness like the flu, and the likelihood of a player taking a risk to earn the reward goes way up when a game is the magnitude of the one Manasquan was supposed to play on Thursday night.
It underscores, however, that basketball could not be part of the decision on Thursday night. This risks to the communities involved were too great and perhaps rather than Manasquan's BOE jumping in too early, the NJSIAA got the message a little too late. With the boys group finals lacking a site, South Brunswick forced out of the tournament and Hackettstown withdrawing, the state could have made the decision for everyone and saved a little bit of heartache for those three affected teams.
"It's tough because you're dealing with stuff that no one has really dealt with before," NJSIAA executive director Larry White told NJ Advance Media on Thursday. "There are going to be people that will say we made the wrong decision even if nothing comes out of it. And if we didn't do it, people would say that was the wrong decision. The governor (Phil Murphy) coming out and saying anything with 250 or more people needs to be canceled, that kind of helped us. We were already going to say no spectators, no fans. But with that kind of direction, it's also saying that he didn't say we should shut everything down."
Although no one from Hackettstown or Manasquan publicly criticized the state for going ahead with Thursday's game, by pulling their teams from the tournament, they effectively disagreed with the state's decision to play on.
"I’m not one of the decision-makers on things like this but I know the only thing they are considering is the health and safety of the kids," Bilodeau said. "Once the venues started to say no fans allowed, things started happening. It took our heightened awareness to another level and kind of set off some alarms. It’s a tough situation and in the end, the NJSIAA obviously echoed those sentiments."
In the end, Manasquan will take some solace in finishing 31-1, winning the program's first Shore Conference Tournament championship in 63 years and winning a third Central Group II title in six years. Up until last year, football teams all over New Jersey ended their season in the sectional finals, not knowing how they stacked up against the rest of the state, so maybe it's not so crazy for the basketball teams in the state to end their season with a little less closure than usual.
"This was something that none of us could have foreseen and none of us knows what the right answer is, ultimately," Bilodeau said. "I know people don’t take it lightly. It’s tough. The kids had a great year, the whole community is really proud of them and in the long run, this is only going to be a positive for them."
Regardless of the accolades piled up within those 31 wins, this will always be the season that could have been for the Warriors, as well as for Camden - which could have become the first public school team since the 2000 Panthers to win the Tournament of Champions. The Manasquan players wanted badly to bring home a big headline on Thursday and a first-ever Group II boys basketball championship trophy on Sunday. Instead, the people whose opinion mattered most were the adults who have to care for them, who didn't want them bringing something much worse back to the small, intimate seaside community.
As time passes, the decision is sure to make at least a little more sense to the Manasquan players. No matter what happens, though, we will never fully know whether or not the decision to pull Manasquan out of the tournament prevented something tragic. Just like the question of whether or not Manasquan could have beaten Camden, all we can do is wonder.