Mar. 13—The Rochester Lourdes girls basketball players had never seen their coach like this, tears in his eyes.
But this situation was like none they'd ever dealt with before. And it had that coach, Aaron Berg, completely choked up as he gathered his players around with an announcement one year ago just ahead of a morning practice at the University of Minnesota's Recreation and Wellness Center.
It was Friday, March 13. Top-ranked Lourdes was about eight hours from playing in the Class AA state semifinals at Williams Arena.
READ MORE FROM THE SERIES: A Year With COVID
Or so it thought.
"I remember him calling us into a huddle," said Lourdes' All-State 6-foot-1 guard, Alyssa Ustby, a senior at the time. "I remember seeing the look on Berg's face and that his eyes were wet.
"All he said was, 'It's over.' "
The remainder of the tournament had been cancelled by the Minnesota State High School League that morning due to a sudden rise of COVID-19 cases, the beginnings of a 100-years pandemic that would soon smother the world.
Berg had gotten the call that morning from Lourdes Activities Director Steve Strickland. It had come as Berg and his team was walking the one block from the Graduate Hotel to its practice site.
Berg didn't know how to go forward with the information once it was relayed to him. So, he kept walking toward the Recreation and Wellness Center, shaken but staying quiet until he and the team got there.
This had been such a special season, Lourdes spending most of it as Class AA's No. 1-ranked team and the odds-on favorite to claim the school's first state championship in 15 seasons.
It had been the culmination of years of preparation and devotion to the game and this program. And there were those Lourdes seniors to think about on this 28-2 team — fourth-year starter Ustby, as well as starting point guard Anna Otto and reserve center Ellie VanSande.
This is what they'd been building toward, waiting for. Just as they figured to take their two most glorious bites out of this basketball sandwich, it was yanked from them.
Berg didn't know what to say or do. He actually considered holding the entire planned practice and then giving his players the painful word when it was over.
But as his players sat on the gym floor, their state-tournament faces bubbling as they slipped on their socks and shoes, oblivious to the coming announcement, Berg could take it no more.
There would be no practice, instead just that huddle and that devastating announcement.
"When I told them, they were in complete shock," Berg said. "Everyone was hugging and crying."
As Berg and his players reflect on it, there were some signs that their state tournament could be interrupted. COVID-19 had just begun to rear its head.
And they weren't the only southeastern Minnesota girls basketball team that's been left to consider a state tournament and a season cut short by a pandemic. Fillmore Central had reached state for the first time in school history, advancing in Class A.
Turned out the Falcons got to enjoy it for one game.
They sure hadn't seen this coming one week before, when they beat Blooming Prairie in the Section 1A finals in front of a packed Mayo Civic Arena.
News was starting to trickle in nationwide about COVID-19 then, but it was only a trickle.
In a pandemic, it's alarming what a difference a week can make.
"At that moment, we were not worried about (COVID-19)," Fillmore Central coach Levi Olstad said. "We were starting to hear a little bit about it, but I had no idea it would affect us to the extent it did. l thought then that we were in position to have a complete state tournament."
The one state tournament game the Falcons were allowed, happened at 5 p.m Thursday, March 12. They did it with plenty on their minds, so much of it pandemic related. COVID-19 had already infringed upon their state-tournament experience beginning early that morning when they got word that going forward, the MSHSL was slicing the number of fans allowed to attend games.
"We had a big fan bus coming to watch us, and it turned out only half of them were allowed to make the trip," said Kassidy Broadwater, a senior standout on last year's team.
The news got infinitely tougher later that day. The MSHSL further ramped up its squeeze on the tournament, COVID-19 in mind, abandoning consolation games the rest of the way. Olstad and his players were delivered that news a couple of hours before taking on Henning in that first-round game at the U of M's Maturi Pavilion.
For the loser, the state tournament would be a one-and-done experience.
Fillmore Central lost to Henning 69-56. The Falcons would spend that night in their Minneapolis hotel rooms, then head home the next morning.
"When we knew it was done, it was frustrating," Olstad said. "I was disappointed for the girls because I wanted them to have everything they'd earned."
Broadwater and her teammates had a tough time coming to terms with it.
"I do feel like we got cheated," she said. "We wanted to have another game. I wanted to play with my teammates one more time, to be on the floor together one more time. Plus, we missed out on all of the hanging out that comes with a state tournament."
— — —
All associated with that Lourdes girls team will forever be left to consider what might have been.
The Eagles were playing their best basketball of the season just as the MSHSL's chopping block came out. They'd crushed Concordia Academy-Roseville 71-55 in the state quarterfinals, riding another massive performance by Ustby (25 points, nine rebounds), as well as contributions and teamwork from so many, including 23 points by guard C.J. Adamson, eight points from Annamarie Sieve, seven from Otto and five points and eight rebounds from Sydney Elliott.
It represented Lourdes' 16th straight win. The Eagles figured to up that to 18 with two more wins, in the semifinals and the championship, and then to be hoisting that first-place trophy for the first time since 2005.
But it never happened. They never got that chance, denied by a pandemic.
"I've not completely moved on," said Ustby, who is having a standout freshman basketball season at the University of North Carolina. "We did get robbed. But in the bigger picture, I do understand and am at peace with why we didn't get that chance to prove ourselves and to show all of that hard work we'd put in. But we learned a lesson, and that is to never take anything for granted. You have to enjoy every moment, because Covid has shown us that we never know what our future is going to be."
Those who remain on this year's Lourdes team have taken that philosophy with them all season.
They continue to live through the pandemic, and they've learned.
"As a team, what happened last year has helped us support each other this season," Elliott said. "And it's taught me to live in the moment, to play every game like it's my last."