BILLINGS — One of the many enduring memories of last Friday for Billings Central girls basketball coach Jetton Ailes is the abruptness with which the season ended for everybody, but especially for her Rams.
It was a unique situation to be sure, a situation that no basketball coach prepares for, no matter how attuned to detail he or she is.
Up until the very moment the Montana High School Association scuttled the remainder of all eight state basketball tournaments late Friday, the Rams were still giddy from having defeated two-time defending Class A champion Havre in the state tournament semifinals. Some players were milling around the lower concourse of Metra, some standing with parents getting ready to leave for home as players for the next game were warming up. Some were still back by the team’s locker room.
Then came the bombshell. It had been announced earlier in the night that four Montanans had tested presumptive positive for the novel coronavirus, and that turned out to be the signal to the MHSA that the risks of having thousands of people gathered in various arenas were no longer acceptable.
As players from Hardin and Livingston stood on the First Interstate Arena floor, awaiting their own semifinal, the public address announcer told all in the building that the tournament would be canceled after the Rangers-Bulldogs’ game.
Those Central and Havre basketball players still by their locker rooms, some even still in uniform, were unable to hear the PA system, and they found out the news via social media or from reporters that the MHSA was pulling the plug. What quickly followed, for the most part, was a torrent of tears.
“That was a roller-coaster of emotion in five minutes,” Ailes said, three days later. “As a coach you do what you can to, I don’t want to say protect your kids, but you do what you can … that was just hard to see the look on kids’ faces like that.
“To see them cry and all those emotions come out at once. First positive and then negative. It’s hard, because they mean a lot to you.”
Upon hearing the somber news, Central players worked their way back to the locker room many had just vacated moments before, a steady stream of heartbreak. Last in line was Olivia Moten-Schell, the lone senior on the Rams’ roster. Her father, Michael Moten, who is also an assistant coach, had his arms around his daughter. He was providing both emotional, and physical, support.
“There’s no substitute for the raw emotions everybody felt that night,” Ailes said. “Having (Moten-Schell) go out like that isn’t the ideal situation, but she can go out a champion on the floor and off. She made a mark on a program that will have a lasting impact for a long time.”
Once all her players were back in the locker room, Ailes told them how sorry she was, and that she knew she didn’t have any words to make them feel better. She told the Rams not to take a day of basketball, or of life, for granted, because as they had just experienced, it could be gone in an instant.
She also told them they had done everything they could to give themselves a chance to be a state champion. What had happened was out of their control.
Ailes just wished she could take it all away.
“The end was so abrupt,” Ailes said. “You have to be proud of these kids for controlling what they could control. They did what they could to earn the right to play for a state title and there’s nothing more that we could do.
“You talk all year long about controlling what you can control, and until the absolute final moments these kids did. That’s something they need to be proud of and they need to be celebrated and they need to know they left it all on the floor in the right ways. They need to be proud of what they accomplished.”
Officially, Central and Hardin are co-state champions, along with the 14 other semifinal winners for the boys and girls in the Class AA, B and C ranks. For the Rams, it’s their first state title since 2013.
Knowing there wouldn’t be a trophy presentation following the Hardin-Livingston semifinal, the Rams filtered back out of the locker room once again. Most were emotionally spent and since there wasn’t much to be gained by waiting out the evening at Metra, the Rams went home.
It was a weekend on edge from the start. As the novel coronavirus surrounded the state, and before it was officially detected within Montana’s borders, other states canceled, postponed or played their high school tournaments with minimal fan participation. The NCAA canceled March Madness and professional leagues suspended their seasons. There were plenty more signs the tournaments could be in jeopardy.
But the MHSA chose to go full speed ahead with its tournaments, and made it through Thursday and most of Friday. And then the swift end.
“Hopefully, this is a once in a lifetime situation that we never have to go through again,” Ailes said.