SportsMonday Column: If shutdown derails the season, let's take a moment to appreciate it
It’s around 10 a.m. on Sunday, and Katelynn Flaherty is calling. We’d set this up on Saturday afternoon, before the news of a department-wide shutdown for Michigan athletics hit. I wanted to ask Flaherty, the leading all-time scorer for Michigan basketball (men’s and women’s), about this year’s team, which looks like it might do something special. My plan was to talk to her, to get on the postgame Zoom call after Michigan-Purdue in the afternoon and to write a column about the arc of the program’s growth.
Then news got in the way.
The women’s basketball team — along with every other Michigan athletic program — is in quarantine until Feb. 7. This quarantine means no games and no practices, so it is unlikely that they can return to play immediately after it ends. Right now, there are six games left on the Wolverines’ schedule, with the status of eight postponed games unclear. Exactly if or how those games get made up, or what it means for the Big Ten standings if they can’t be played, is unclear (a Big Ten spokesman didn’t return a text asking how standings would be decided if games can’t be made up).
It’s worth noting as well that this is the best-case scenario. As of Saturday night, there were no COVID-19 cases in the women’s basketball program (or men’s basketball or hockey, for that matter). As pertains to everything else regarding the pandemic, that could change.
The University, and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, aren’t playing around with the B.1.1.7. variant of the virus. It’s thought to be up to 50% more transmissible and, according to Matt Hancock, the health secretary in the United Kingdom, 10-50% more deadly. If this two-week shutdown doesn’t halt the spread of the variant, it’s unclear what happens next.
But even this best-case scenario is a shame, for the reasons Flaherty was calling me for in the first place. The Michigan women’s basketball team is 10-1, their first loss coming this week after a record 50-point performance from junior forward Naz Hillmon wasn’t enough to get past Ohio State. They look like a team that could get to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament — which would make them the best team in the history of the program.
“I do think that when we are 100%, we can compete with anyone,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said after a win over Wisconsin took them to 10-0. “I think our team really believes that.”
“That’s what coach (Barnes) Arico has talked about when she was recruiting me initially and then from the time that I was there,” Flaherty said. “Just to see it all happen, it’s incredible.”
To put that into context, when Flaherty came into the program as a freshman in 2014, Michigan had made the NCAA Tournament four times in program history. The Wolverines finished eighth in the Big Ten that year, and they’ve steadily climbed upwards since. In Flaherty’s junior year, they won the WNIT after an unexpected snub from the selection committee. “But I think after that, it kind of was the expectation. ‘OK, make the NCAA Tournament,’ ” she said.
The next two years, they did. Before COVID-19 canceled last year’s tournament, they were expected to make it again. And it seemed like — barring another act of God — they’d be in a position to do so again this year.
Problem is, no one accounted for an act — or to use their phrasing, a recommendation — of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.
“No. Not at all,” Flaherty said when asked whether she could imagine being in this situation. “Just because I’m someone that wanted to be out there individually, working out all the time. That’s something that I did every single day when I was at Michigan.
“But also the team aspect. Being able to run, just communicate, talk about everything, it’s definitely different if everyone has to quarantine. And then like you said, not being on the floor, just staying in shape and having that connection with your team. That’s really what’s going so well for Michigan right now, just how they’re playing together out there. I think that’s hard and it’s just hard not doing that for two weeks and then (coming) back and (being) expected to go out there and pick up where you left off.
“I don’t think that’s fair to put that expectation on these athletes just because it’s very, very different if you’re not doing anything for two weeks.”
The program declined to make Barnes Arico and players available for questions on Sunday morning, which is understandable given they’re still processing the news. Suffice it to say, though, they have every right to be upset even if they believe the decision to be correct. So does every other athlete, coach and administrator at the University who’s been trying since October to pull off games and practices safely.
This might have been the year the Michigan women’s basketball program took the next step. It still could be. But the questions hanging over it now are much bigger than just a couple of days ago.
This team may no longer be defined by Hillmon setting program records, winning the Big Ten or an NCAA Tournament run. If that’s the case, it’ll be hard to swallow. Getting the program to this point hasn’t been easy. Having it ripped away for reasons beyond the team’s control would border on tragic.
So, to make sure someone gives Barnes Arico and the program that credit, we’ll give the last word here to Flaherty.
“She wanted to build up the program, she wanted to compete with the UConn’s, the Kentucky’s, whoever was at the top at that time,” Flaherty said. “And she wanted to pick people to come to Michigan that believed in that vision and wanted to be different than going to those high-caliber schools. To kind of be the start of something special, make a name for yourself. So I think that just attests to who coach (Barnes) Arico is, how far the program has come, but also all of the girls that have been recruited, everyone there, just for a bigger mission. Everyone’s working together.
“So I think that’s really important to note. She told me that however many years ago and here it is coming to fruition a few short years later.”
Sears can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ethan_sears.
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