BILLINGS — About 18 hours after the high school basketball season ended — one day prematurely — Kevin Morales couldn’t help thinking what he’d be doing in a different universe.
What if the coronavirus hadn’t encroached upon Montana when it did, early Friday evening when Gov. Steve Bullock announced that four presumptive cases of the novel virus had been identified? And what if, a few hours later, acting upon that bit of unwanted news, the Montana High School Association hadn’t put a halt to its boys and girls state basketball tournaments upon the completion of all the semifinals, one day short of the championship games?
What if …?
“I just keeping popping back and forth in my head, there’d be a lunch for pregame …,” Morales, the Skyview boys basketball coach, said over the phone early Saturday evening. “It’s about 5:30 … Amanda, my wife, jokes, 'Hey, you’d be puking right now.' But, no, I’m just kind of walking through the day. When 8 o’clock hits it’s going to be kind of different.
“It is kind of sad for the kids. The whole prep of the day, the announcement of that state championship lineup, the whole environment. It’s awesome. But at least they got to experience some of it.”
Amanda Morales kids her husband about his propensity to get nervous before big games. And, yes, about the time Morales was talking on the phone, his Falcons and 15 other Montana basketball teams would have been preparing what for many of them would be the game of their lives. A state championship game.
But there isn’t that alternate universe. Only real life. And in real life, those championship games weren’t played Saturday night.
Instead, the MHSA named 16 state champions Friday night, two each for each gender in each classification. All of Friday’s semifinals winners were deemed co-champions by the organization.
In Class AA, that meant No. 5-ranked Skyview (17-6) was co-champions with top-ranked Missoula Hellgate (23-0), and Charlie Johnson’s No. 4 Billings West girls (19-3), who won 17 straight games, shared the title with top-ranked Helena Capital (21-1). Hellgate’s boys defeated Skyview 62-53 in the first game of the season. One week later, Capital’s girls beat West 43-42 in the teams’ third game of the season.
Both Morales and Johnson were accepting of how things played out, even though all 16 teams that would have been involved in the championship games probably felt they’d have a chance to win their game.
Morales couldn’t disagree.
“I truly believe at all levels it’d be a dang good game,” he said.
Even before the tournaments began on Thursday, Morales and Johnson said, doubts persisted on whether the events would be completed. As big events like the NCAA Tournament and major league sports began canceling and suspending their events and seasons, what chance did high school tournaments have?
Still, when the news hit that the tournaments were to be stopped, it was sudden.
“It was still surreal when they called it,” Johnson said. “It was just, like, huh? Probably the toughest thing was the expression on the players’ faces. The tears, the disbelief that it’s over for the seniors. It kind of set in for some (Friday night) that, holy smokes, this is our last game. For others who didn’t quite know how to process it, it’ll take a couple days to set in that their high school career is done.”
Neither Morales nor Johnson pointed fingers or placed blame. They both said they’ll gladly take their co-championship and were looking forward to celebrations to come.
“We’re with our kids a lot — a lot — fighting for that one Saturday night game,” said Morales, who previously won state titles in 2015 and 2016. “It is what it is and I’m just excited. We’ll go straight along with it just like it’s a state championship. We’re going to hang a banner, we’re doing all that stuff and enjoying it, because the kids are very deserving of it. They worked hard for it.”
West, too, will hang a banner and have a celebratory assembly. Although Johnson’s team will have something else to look forward to.
For the past two seasons, Johnson has been growing out his beard, promising his team that if it won a state title, the beard would be theirs.
About a 30 minutes after receiving Friday night’s devastating news, Johnson’s players reminded him of his promise. Unfortunately for Johnson, the beard has become a part of who he is, and he’s not real eager to part with it. He said he’s willing to barter with his players.
“So we’ll see if I can appease to their sensitive side,” he said, not sounding too confident. “But with this group, as you know, they want to pour water on me, hit me, play jokes on me. I’d say the beard’s coming off.
“Which is OK. It’ll grow back.”
It’s the price you gladly pay for a championship, even if it’s a shared one.