'It hurts’: Peoria players, coaches react to decision to postpone IHSA basketball
PEORIA — Isaiah Donnell might have to continue his journey in basketball without a senior season.
The Richwoods guard was stunned Monday night when Peoria Public Schools voted 5-1 to suspend participation in the 2020-21 Illinois High School Association basketball season.
That means no hoops for Richwoods, Manual and Peoria high schools in the IHSA's winter season. Some teams in the area will play in the winter. Others are falling in line with Gov. JB Pritzker's edict to wait for the spring.
There are no guarantees COVID will be any different in the spring. Or that Pritzker won't ban games again. Or that student athletes can handle the overlap of IHSA sports moved from the fall and winter into a now bloated spring.
On Monday night in Peoria, basketball seemed terminal. Certainly, there won't be an IHSA state championship series.
"I started playing when I was 3," said Donnell, a 6-foot-3 guard. "It's why I wear No. 3. It represents a lifetime in the game for me. I grew up in a family where basketball is important.
"This is mind-blowing tonight, to think my senior season just got blown up because of COVID. You dream about playing the game.
"I want to play after high school. My future plans were riding on this senior year."
Basketball practices begin under IHSA guidelines on Nov. 16, and games are scheduled to start on Nov. 30. Peoria’s public schools won’t be playing games.
"It's an unpopular decision, but I think that's the way we have to go," Peoria Public Schools board president Doug Shaw said as the board voted Monday night.
Richwoods boys coach Will Smith said the decision was tough to accept, and called it hard to process as he prepared to call his players with the news Monday night.
"We understand the magnitude of this decision, the risk of COVID," Smith said. "But taking a sport from kids who are dedicated to it, this is like processing a death in the family.
Smith says there is more at risk without basketball now, too.
"What's going to be different in the spring?" Smith said. "Now it's about trying to keep guys engaged. We have to manage their mental health and their academic health. When a kid invests himself in a sport, trains, commits to it, it becomes part of him. Then you take it away, it's very damaging."
Former Peoria Public Schools teacher and teachers union head Terry Knapp appeared before the board at the meeting. He presented board members with a chart that showed basketball practice and season launch dates for all 50 states.
"You are going to do unlimited damage to these kids that are not allowed to play," said Knapp, citing a highly touted incoming freshman player at Peoria High as an example. "You should have announced this before ... if this was my daughter I would move her from this district because there are schools in this area that are going to be playing.
"I would move her, because you betrayed her. These students deserve more from you than being crapped on."
Peoria Public School superintendent Dr. Sharon Desmoulin-Kherat responded by pointing out the unenviable position school boards find themselves trapped in, as they must choose between a green light to the season delivered by the IHSA and a warning from the Illinois Department of Public Health and the Illinois State Board of Education that they can't play.
"Basketball is one of my favorite sports," she said. "What we are doing is following IDPH and ISBE guidelines. The consequences ... are just really severe in terms of ... funding being impacted negatively and also liability.
"For many many schools, the legal teams are saying don't go there. (The state) has deemed basketball as being high risk for the time being, and it's postponed right now, it's not like it's completely being eliminated.
"It's more than just saying you are going to play. Who are you going to play against?"
But no one can guarantee a game will be played in the spring, either.
"I felt like our superintendent and our board didn't quit on us," Peoria High School girls coach Meechie Edwards said. "I believe we still have something to look forward to. We didn't get no to basketball tonight. We could still play in the spring.
"It will be difficult, but we can figure out how to make it work."
Dave Eminian is the Journal Star sports columnist, and covers the Rivermen and Chiefs. He writes the Cleve In The Eve sports column for pjstar.com. Reach him at 686-3206 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @icetimecleve.