Mat Sand was driving through the darkness Thursday night when it struck him that he was supposed to be somewhere else at that moment.
Not following his headlights down the black maw of Interstate 84 toward Baker City.
But beneath the bright lights of a gymnasium 300 miles away at Forest Grove High School, watching his Baker girls basketball team on its quest to win consecutive Class 4A state titles.
“I looked at the clock, it was 8:15, and I thought we should be tipping off right now,” said Sand, who finished his fifth year as the Bulldogs’ coach in a most unexpected way.
About 11 a.m. Thursday Sand and his fellow coaches learned that the Oregon School Activities Association (OSAA) had canceled the 4A, 5A and 6A girls and boys state tournaments.
“It’s kind of a surreal moment,” said Sand, who guided the Bulldogs to the 2019 championship, the first for a Baker girls team.
Sand said he immediately drove to Baker’s team hotel, about a 25-minute drive away, to tell his players.
“It was disappointing, for myself and my team,” he said. “My heart just goes out to the seniors.”
Those seniors are Sydney Younger, Anna Carter, Lauren Benson and Isabella Nemec.
Sand said the season’s end, which in effect happened in a team meeting in a motel room rather than on the court, was unsatisfying because it lacked the definitive conclusion of a win or a loss — both of which the Bulldogs have experienced during Sand’s tenure.
“You go in there with the expectations, and the opportunity to do it (win a state title) again,” he said. “This has such a different feel to it. Being the defending champion, we were extremely excited, extremely confident that we were going to make a great run at it.”
Younger, the Bulldogs’ senior point guard and most experienced player, said she was disappointed when she learned late Wednesday that the OSAA was banning spectators from tournament games but, as of that time, the games themselves would happen.
“We got together as a team and said we can do this, we’ve got to be loud on the bench,” Younger said.
But then on Thursday the final verdict came in — there would be no games at all.
Younger said she was alone when Sand, on his way to the motel from Forest Grove, phoned her with the dismal news.
“It was the biggest blow I think I’ve gotten in a long time,” Younger said. “It was really heartbreaking, actually.”
She said she felt sorry not only for her teammates but also for competitors such as Greater Oregon League rival La Grande, which also qualified for the state tournament.
But rather than wallow in sorrow and simply disperse, never again to share a bench, Younger said the Bulldogs got together and decided that if they couldn’t play basketball together again, they would at least conclude their trip to the state tournament in a positive way.
They initially thought of a trip to the Oregon Coast, but they ended up having lunch at Camp 18, a roadside attraction in the Coast Range between Portland and Seaside that includes a logging museum.
“It was a blessing in disguise,” Younger said. “We all ended up having so much fun. I think we really finished on a high note. It was a last hurrah for everyone.”
Sand said his disappointment at the abrupt end to a state tournament — indeed, one that never actually started — is tempered with the reality that coronavirus is a serious matter, and one that transcends sports.
“I don’t think anybody knows the magnitude of this thing,” he said. “As a nation we’re taking precautions, and it’s better off to default on the side of being extremely protective, which I appreciate.
“I’m not questioning the decision that was made. There is a lot of emotion, but I told the girls that that’s some of the things we have to deal with in life.”
If nothing else, Younger said, the 2020 state tournament — the one that never officially happened — was in its own way as memorable as the 2019 event in which the Bulldogs achieved a milestone.
“We made history last year, and we’re in the middle of history this year,” she said.