BOZEMAN — For Mark Beckman and the Montana High School Association, it was damned if you did and damned if you didn’t from the get-go this week.
And that scenario only magnified Friday night — during semifinals at four high school state basketball tournaments — when word came from the state that four presumptive cases of coronavirus had been reported in Montana, three in counties sporting crowded arenas.
For MHSA’s executive director and his board, the line had finally been crossed for the final state to be staging its state tournaments.
“It was a difficult situation because you’re looking at what is the best decision in regards to participants and fans,” Beckman said on a Saturday afternoon where gyms expected to be at a crescendo of excitement were mostly hollowed-out shells.
“But as you look at it in this particular case, it was a health issue.”
In short, the coronavirus risk had elevated from what Beckman described as a low threshold to a middle threshold. The plan all along had been to cancel if coronavirus cases arrived in Montana and weren’t isolated to, say, a hospital or senior care center.
Once made aware of the virus’ discovery in or around Billings, Butte and Bozeman plus Helena, the MHSA doubled back with state and local health officials. Beckman, with support of his board, then made the final call at around 9 p.m. Friday.
That was less than five hours after the MHSA had issued a statement citing Montana remaining one of three coronavirus-free states as the reason games were continuing as scheduled.
“It’s the most difficult, that’s for sure,” Beckman said of where canceling ranked among challenging decisions over his 16 years as executive director and seven as an assistant. “But to make those decisions, you have to have a lot of input — experts with the health department, and a very supportive board.
“It’s a decision I was very comfortable with. When it got to this point, where if it got here this is what we’re going to do, you just have to do it.”
Naturally, the feedback has run the gamut.
People who applauded him for staying the course early in the week now are upset that the plug was pulled with one day remaining. People who thought it reckless to stage the event amid a creeping pandemic are cheering the decision to halt it.
“Yeah, it was a difficult night,” Beckman said with a chuckle.
If there is consolation, he said, it’s the tournaments at least had arrived at a place where the MHSA could crown champions, even if they're shared in all four boys and girls classifications.
Shock, anger and tears were among the emotions for disbelieving players, coaches and fans.
“We did get to a place in the tournaments that I believe was a good place to say we do have two undefeated teams, and everyone had two days to come experience the tournaments,” Beckman said.
As teams and fans were packing up to hit the road Saturday — some facing snowy drives as long as 600 miles — a few kicked around the idea of teams such as the Scobey and Fairview boys as well as the Belt and Roy-Winifred girls meeting in a neutral gym to determine unofficial champions.
Beckman said there’s nothing stopping them from doing just that.
“Yeah, they can do it unofficially,” he said. “We’ll still have co-champions.”
Beckman said he hopes when the teams and communities eventually reconcile the events of Friday they’ll reflect and realize they were a part of a unique chapter in the state’s sports history, albeit "not a great part,” he conceded.
As for spring sports, Beckman said he will try to gather a quorum of MHSA board members early next week and discuss options. Once they’re able to get a large enough group and hash it out, they’ll announce their plan for spring.
In the meantime, Beckman will long remember the past 72 hours and forever be steadfast that the MHSA made the prudent choice Friday. The group was in constant contact with state health officials as well as leaders in Washington, Wyoming and other neighboring states.
“I really believe it went the only way it could,” Beckman said when asked if in 20-20 hindsight any other choices could’ve been made. “I think we were very prepared, we had a good plan coming in, and good lines of communication.
“We made the decision I believe was the right decision.”