It has been more than a month since the Cambridge-Isanti boys basketball team reached one of its season goals by winning the section title.
Of course, that also means it has been roughly a month since the Bluejackets saw the chance to reach another goal simply fade away.
Concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic led the MSHSL to cancel the boys basketball tournament without a team ever trotting onto the Target Center court.
“I was talking to Ryan Cox, and we agreed that it’s never going to leave our minds – it’s always going to be there,” said Paul Swanson, one of the team’s seniors, when asked about not playing in the state tournament. “It’s unfinished business. And it doesn’t get any easier.”
The cancellation was a gut-punch to the Bluejackets, coming mere hours after the team had knocked off Duluth East to win the Class 4A Section 7 title for the second year in a row. Suddenly the victory was devalued, and the sense of accomplishment was replaced by a sense of emptiness.
“I remember the locker room after we found out [the state tournament was canceled] – there were a lot of tears in people’s eyes,” coach Mike McDonald said. “It was hard to find words to comfort them, to deal with the shock and the sorrow, the lack of closure to our season.”
And if that wasn’t bad enough, the following week brought word from the state that schools would be closed. How do you properly grieve a loss in the family when the family is forced to be separated?
“We were together every day – we got in fights, we had fun, we did everything together,” Swanson said. “The basketball team is our family during the season.”
And Swanson said the chemistry and selflessness of this team was its strength.
“No one on the team cared about points. Everyone cared about filling their role,” he said. “My role on this team was the take charges – I didn’t really care about points. Hunter [Melander] and Connor [Braaten] were all about rebounds. Everyone played their role, and we were all pieces of a puzzle.”
And what a beautiful puzzle those pieced formed. Cambridge-Isanti finished 24-4, claiming the most victories in school history. The Bluejackets made 360 3-pointers, the second-highest total in state history – a number topped only by last year’s team. Henry Abraham was named Mississippi 8 Conference MVP for the third year in a row, and he was joined on the all-league team by Micah Ladd and Braaten, while Cox, Melander and Swanson earned honorable mention.
Before the tournament was canceled, there was brief talk about taking safety measures to play. Perhaps it could be played without fans, with the possibility of limiting admission to players and game personnel. Maybe moving the tournament to a smaller venue would make it safer.
But if those changes are made, it isn’t really the state tournament, is it? Part of the tournament’s allure is playing on a big stage like the Target Center, with bands and cheerleaders and fans from around the state roaring after every big play. And the state tournament experience isn’t the same if you cannot share it with your friends and family.
So it was canceled. While that news certainly caused pain for players such as Abraham and Ladd, that ache is salved to a degree by the knowledge they will play basketball in college. And Braaten is a junior, meaning he will return next winter.
Neither of those options is available to seniors such as Melander and Cox and Swanson, who was on the JV team last season and was looking forward to his opportunity to play on that big stage.
“Last year I got to play in the state tournament for about a minute or so,” Swanson said. “So I was going to get a chance to really play at the Target Center – and suddenly it was taken away. It was hard.”
Isn’t that one of the biggest lessons we should take from this pandemic? Even the tickets we have earned can be harshly snatched out of our hands before we can redeem them. So we must cherish them, and never take for granted the blood, sweat and tears it takes to claim them.
Here’s another lesson we should remember: Let’s not let this virus take away our ability to dream.
“If we could have played anyone but Eden Prairie in the first round, I think we could have won at least one game,” Swanson said. “Other teams might have been bigger than us, but I think it’s hard to beat a team that is fast and can shoot.”
And it’s even harder to beat a team that is not afraid to do the little things that lead to a victory, or a section title. So let’s celebrate our “state champions” on the Cambridge-Isanti boys basketball team.
After all, their ability to deal with the cruelest of fates – and bear it with grace and dignity – marks these Bluejackets as champions in my book.