Prep Basketball

Why the IHSAA decided to finish boys' state basketball tournament with limited fans

Executive director Tom Keating has no second guesses

Boyden-Hull's Josh Heitritter (13) and North Linn's Austin Miller (13) jump for a rebound in front of nearly-empty stand
Boyden-Hull’s Josh Heitritter (13) and North Linn’s Austin Miller (13) jump for a rebound in front of nearly-empty stands during the Class 2A state championship game last week at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Tom Keating was in his office in Boone midafternoon Tuesday.

The Iowa High School Athletic Association’s first-year executive director is a commuter. He and his wife, Jodi, still live in Cedar Rapids, with Keating doing as much remote work as he can.

He does make the four-hour, round-trip drive to central Iowa multiple times a week, though. It was something the couple discussed before Keating decided to leave his job as president of Cedar Rapids Xavier High School and pursue this one.

Keating talked Tuesday about last week’s boys’ state basketball tournament, which was held at Des Moines’ Wells Fargo Arena from beginning to end, though Friday’s four championship games were conducted with very few spectators. The IHSAA allowed each of the eight participating schools, as well as the four schools playing consolation games that day, just 100 total entrants, which included players, coaches and team managers, because of concerns over the growing COVID-19 pandemic.

It was a surreal scene, to say the least. One no one ever wants to see again.

“First of all, I was just very thankful that we had an opportunity to play the games,” Keating said. “I don’t think anybody that raised the trophy said, ‘Well, this isn’t really what we wanted.’ Once we threw the ball up, the kids and the coaches got after it. In between those lines, you really couldn’t tell a difference. When you looked around the arena was when you could tell.”

Keating said he appreciated everyone’s cooperation and understanding in a unique and trying situation. He said the IHSAA did not field even one complaint about the limited access.

People were able to watch the games online and on TV via the Iowa High School Sports Network. Other media members also were allowed to attend and report.

“I thought the parents had fun, they imitated the kids (student sections), chanted and whooped it up pretty good. I think what they were trying to do is enjoy the experience, but also make it as familiar of an experience for the kids as they could. For that, I’ve got to thank them. They embraced it. They could have growled.

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“To a person, in those eight crowds for those four championships, we didn’t get any pushback. When you put a number on it, we knew we were going to leave people outside. We knew that was the case. Unfortunately an AD was going to have to draw a line somewhere. But people really understood.”

Keating said the status of the tournament always was fluid. The IHSAA paid attention to CDC recommendations and was in consistent contact with the Iowa Department of Public Health and the governor’s office, among others.

There had been no community spread of the virus in the state at the start of the tournament last Monday morning or up to its conclusion Friday night, so there was no recommendation to call it off completely. Gov. Kim Reynolds announced the first instance of believed community spread Saturday night.

With the sports dominoes falling quickly last week when it came to postponement and cancellation of tournaments and seasons, the IHSAA announced its policy of limited spectators Thursday night.

“We started with kind of an imaginary scale of full cancellation to doing nothing,” Keating said. “We knew we did not want to land on one end of that, and we knew that we couldn’t land on the other. We felt given the way things were progressing, not only from the information we were getting, but the action that other organizations, both collegiate, pro and high school state associations were taking, we felt we had to try to do something.

“We really felt that as much as we could we wanted to protect giving the kids the opportunity to play. We were going to try to do everything we could to make every effort to make that happen, while still being cognizant of safety and health.”

He has no second guesses.

“We think we landed in a pretty good place,” Keating said. “There will be those who disagree with that, obviously. It was unchartered waters. There was no road map for that, no how-to manual for that. We had to rely on some great people that were giving us great information, starting with the Iowa Department of Public Health and the folks at the Iowa Events Center, and the CDC, obviously. And it really helped to be able to reach out and stay in contact with the state associations around us.”

Keating especially mentioned what he called Section 4 and Section 5: Nebraska, Missouri, Illinois, Minnesota, South Dakota, North Dakota, Indiana, Wisconsin, Kansas and Ohio. Some canceled their tournaments, some held them with few or no fans.

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“I’ll tell you, what a great group,” Keating said. “You ask them to call you, and they call right away and talk through things. Oddly enough, no two states did things exactly the same. But no two state situations were the same.”

Keating also lauded the Iowa Events Center staff, which was amenable to whatever the IHSAA requested. It provided additional hand sanitizers for everyone, among other things.

Elderly fans and those with long-term health issues were asked to strongly consider not attending the tournament.

“Being a former administrator at a school, you realize at some point a decision has to be made,” Keating said. “So, at that point, I don’t know that it was stress as much as it was adrenaline. You get into action mode. All right, what information do I need, who do I need to get that information from, how reliable is the information? Mostly it was what are we not thinking about? That’s where (IHSAA staff), especially, was instrumental in identifying things we had to keep in mind.”

Keating said the events that unfold seemingly minute by minute in this world crisis have made him realize the relative insignificance of some of the issues he has had to deal with in his first year leading the IHSAA. How many schools get into the state football playoffs doesn’t mean much of anything.

“The further we get into it, the more perspective we get, when we understand the potential numbers of this thing and what could happen,” he said. “We didn’t know on Friday that schools were going to be canceled until April 13, we didn’t know the governor was going to declare a state of emergency and public health disaster. We didn’t know any of that. Now that we do, we look back and say, ‘Well, as hard as our decision was, I don’t have to make the decisions the governor is making, I don’t have to make the decisions our president is making.’

"I don’t want to say our event isn’t important because in our kids’ lives, it is. We like to think it’s important, as well. But when you put it into perspective, personally I’m thankful that that is the level of decision I have to make and not the kinds of decisions some of our leaders have to make right now.”

Comments: (319) 398-8259; jeff.johnson@thegazette.com

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