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With/out the ball: The forced adjustment of H.S. athletics – Part 1 of 3


Photo caption: JULIAN HIGH SCHOOL athletic building entrance | Bobby Cameron for the Chicago Crusader

This is part one of a three-part series examining how high schools and student-athletes adapted to the shutdown of their sports programs and the adjustment of a new normal in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Administrators were mandated to halt sports amid virtual learning and the chance to attend college on a full or partial scholarship was of great concern for students.

By Bobby Cameron

A few months into 2020 was a game changer. The coronavirus spread like wildfire throughout the nation, and a mandatory shelter-in-place was enforced for everyone. Non-essential businesses were closed, work-from-home was enacted, and classrooms were locked with no end in near sight. Virtual learning became a reality and then the final ball dropped, literally, for student-athletes.

The Illinois High School Association (IHSA), which oversees high school sports in the state, initially suspended all sports activities in March 2020 and later canceled the spring season entirely.

The fall 2020 season was delayed until the spring of 2021, with modified schedules and safety protocols in place to prevent the spread of the virus. However, some sports, such as football and basketball, were postponed further due to concerns about the risk of transmission.

“Switching to remote learning was one thing, and we were slowly getting into a groove with it. Then it felt like the dominoes were falling. The students couldn’t be in the building for classes, and now we also had to shut down practices and games. And, we didn’t know for how long. I think that’s the part that frustrated the kids more than anything,” said Cynthia Ervin, the athletic program administrator for Chicago Public Schools.

There are 122 CPS high schools and all offer sports programs.

Ervin knows all too well how much sports factors into the well-being and higher education opportunities for student-athletes. She is a former basketball star from Julian High School on the South Side and comes from a revered sports family.

For some students and their families, a sports scholarship can be one of two tickets, or the only ticket, to college. A suspended season can derail those efforts and leave the future uncertain. And the pandemic caused financial strains to some colleges. Some reduced the number of athletic scholarships, making it more competitive for student-athletes to secure funding.

There was limited exposure to college coaches. It made it more challenging for them to showcase their skills and connect with coaches who could offer scholarships. Many colleges turned to virtual recruiting. While this provided some opportunities, it wasn’t the same as in-person interaction. That factor limited the ability for students to make an impression.

NCAA eligibility was also a concern. The pandemic created uncertainty around eligibility requirements because of the shortened or canceled seasons. The limited opportunities to compete created additional stress.

“They simply weren’t playing. So there goes more tape for their highlight reels. There’s no more practicing, so they’re getting out of the routine of conditioning and keeping their skills sharp. Then think about scouts that came to games. That was no longer happening. They couldn’t go on visits, and discouragement set in,” said Ervin.

Ronale Johnson, Morgan Park High School’s head coach for girls’ basketball, softball and girls’ flag football, noticed the toll the suspended season had on his players, but vowed to not let it get to the point where morale would go down. The teams had good camaraderie and stayed cohesive amid their limitations.

He leveraged his connections to make sure scholarship opportunities that were on the table stayed and didn’t fall off. When game restrictions were lifted and precautions were put in place, Johnson managed to livestream some of the basketball games so coaches could assess the players.

“I’ve been coaching for quite some time, and not only at Morgan Park. I’ve cultivated relationships with other coaches and scouts. I was able to make those calls and have them watch the games and set up meetings. The girls worked hard, they deserved it,” he said.

Before joining Morgan Park as the head coach, Johnson was the head girls’ basketball coach at Gary Comer High School and Hyde Park Academy High School, and for some AAU teams. He’s been named the 2023 Illinois Basketball Coaches Association Coach of the Year.

While opportunities became limited for some and the dreams of playing Division I ball seemed not likely in the near future, viable options remained in plain sight: community college sports.

“There’s nothing wrong with playing at a junior college. It gives your body time to mature at the game, and if you need to get stronger academically before trying to transfer to a D1 school, you get that time to prepare academically and athletically,” stressed Chris Gardner, head boys’ basketball coach at Morgan Park.

A South Suburban College coach agreed with Gardner but added a wrinkle.

The pandemic’s impact on high school sports caused a slowdown in the development of some students, leaving some college coaches not wanting to risk signing them. They also couldn’t do in-person recruiting. Taking a chance on a transfer student was less riskier than signing someone fresh out of high school.

“Our recruiting style was basically word-to-mouth. We were getting people who were transferring from other schools. We didn’t get a chance to get out and get any high school kids. We had all transfers,” said Antonne Samuels, head men’s basketball coach at South Suburban.

Samuels said as restrictions eased more in the second year of the pandemic, he didn’t see an improvement in high school recruiting. There seemed to be a shift of staying focused on players who didn’t have to walk in learning the game.

“Some coaches want kids who are ready to play. They get someone who is kind of seasoned, and the coach doesn’t have to jump in and teach them everything at once. They’re going to get a player on the bench at another college because he knows the game a little better,” he said.

Last season, South Suburban had mostly transfers and two freshmen. The team won the national tournament.


Bobby Cameron is an independent Chicago-based journalist who focuses on the intersection of sports and mental health.

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