WINCHENDON — Jenna (Hunt) Whitaker has probably made tougher decisions during her time as athletic director at Murdock Middle High School, but none hurt as much as the one made earlier this week — cancelling the school’s 2021-2022 girls varsity basketball season.
“It breaks my heart to have to do this, being an alumna of the school and a former Blue Devils’ athlete,” Whitaker wrote in an email on Wednesday about Monday’s decision. “The last thing I want to do is see one of our female sports go away.”
Whitaker made the decision because the team simply did not have enough players to make it through a grueling season that, because of the late start, would require the playing of a lot of games in a short period of time.
In mid-December the Blue Devils looked good to go, with six players solidly on board and a seventh who would be able to be at some practices and games. Shortly after the decision to have a season, despite such a thin roster, the Murdock administration instituted a COVID hiatus during winter break — no practices or games.
The six players on first-year coach Brent Routhier’s roster prior to the COVID hiatus were senior Chloe St. Peter, sophomores Emma Oakley and Evelyn O’Dea, and freshmen Kendra Summer, Lisa Carrillo and Emma Blake. The Blue Devils were 1-8 last year, their lone win coming against Trivium School of Lancaster, 45-10, on the road on Feb. 10, 2021. Oakley was the team’s leading scorer last season, averaging 8.4 points per game.
“At that point (before the COVID hiatus mandate), coach and I were both on board with running the season and doing our best so these girls had a chance to play,” Whitaker said. “Our numbers were not ideal but we felt we could make it work.
“Fast forward a couple weeks, after the (COVID) shutdown and Christmas break, I sent out ParentSquare messages and made announcements at school regarding all practices starting back up again,” Whitaker continued. “(Routhier) showed up to practice on Monday to find only one girl in the gym.”
Later that day Whitaker and Routhier were informed that two team members felt, coming out of the COVID hiatus that it would be best if they weren’t part of the team, and a third wouldn’t be able to play because of a knee injury.
“This left us no option at all,” Whitaker said.
“Jenna and I talked briefly (Monday) night and (Tuesday) morning and thought it was appropriate to axe the season because the numbers are so minuscule,” Routhier said Tuesday afternoon in a phone interview. “Despite our low numbers I was looking forward to the season; I’m not one to shy away from a challenge, but unfortunately the numbers just weren’t there.”
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Whitaker said she is baffled at the small number of girls participating in athletics at Murdock.
“I honestly couldn’t tell you why our girls have decided not to play sports at the high school level this year; we were hurting (numbers-wise) in the fall also,” Whitaker said. “I don’t know if it’s the fear of COVID or simply that they don’t enjoy playing sports anymore, I really don’t know; I wish I had the answer. I’m hoping to see our high school girls back out there in the spring playing softball and participating in spring track.”
Whitaker said bringing girls on the middle school basketball team up to play on the varsity was not an option.
“Our middle school girls, honestly, aren’t ready for the varsity level. Some of these eighth-graders, basketball is brand new to them, while others haven’t played since at least sixth grade due to COVID,” Whitaker said. “I think, if we had brought them up, it would’ve hurt them, and the high school girls, more than it would have helped. It just wouldn’t have been fair to anyone.”
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Routhier is disappointed, but is trying to take the cancellation in stride.
“It stinks and everybody is sad, but it is what it is. I hope to have better luck next year, said Routhier, who will attempt, in the spring, to raise interest in the program among the student body.
“I’d like to get the team into a summer league,” Routhier said. “Even if girls aren’t so interested, maybe some athletes want to come out and get in shape by being on a summer league team. Then, maybe, they realize they like how I run things and are more interested in the upcoming season than they were this year. That’s my hope, anyway.”
Whitaker said she will help Routhier increase the numbers in the girls basketball program any way she can.
“Coach has been great through all of this; he wants to build the program for the future. I am completely on board and will do everything on my end I can to keep it going,” Whitaker said. “I would prefer not to co-op unless we absolutely have to. I truly think COVID has turned things upside down in all aspects of life.”
This article originally appeared on Gardner News: Murdock High's girls basketball team cancels 2022 season