Thirty-one years ago this month, I was a sportswriter covering the University of Tennessee basketball team. A relatively mediocre Vols team was assigned to the NCAA East Regional first-round site in Greensboro, N.C.
The story there wasn’t Duke with its promising freshman Christian Laettner, the precarious future of Tennessee coach Don DeVoe or a Stanford team that had rolled off an 11-game win streak, or even anything concerning Kansas State or West Virginia, who also populated the field.
The story was the Siena Saints.
Located in Loudonville, N.Y., near Albany, Siena College had fewer than 3,000 students in 1989. Its teams played in the North Atlantic Conference, alongside Colgate, Vermont, New Hampshire and other programs that don’t exactly lure the eyes of ESPN viewers.
Siena won its first 11 conference games that year and was at 16-3.
Then came the measles.
An 18-year-old student returned from a trip to the Caribbean and was infected. Soon, dozens of other students caught the measles.
Siena officials cancelled classes. Basketball players were given vaccinations, but were still restricted to campus, so two games were cancelled. When the schedule was resumed, they played in empty gyms, home and road. As Dana O’Neill reported in The Athletic, security guards met the Siena team at entrance gates and the team trainer would have a media guide with the players’ pictures and guards would match the photos with the immunization cards the players had been issued.
For all the caution, an opposing player caught the measles from a Siena player who was infected. With safety in mind, the North Atlantic Conference decided to still hold its tournament in Hartford, Conn., but with no fans. The conference whimsically decided to decorate the stands with cardboard cutouts of celebrities.
Siena won the tournament on a last-second layup and received its NCAA invitation. It was assigned to Greensboro as a No. 14 seed (and it would upset No. 3 Stanford by two points).
By NCAA time, the measles ban was lifted. Siena fans traveled to North Carolina. For the first time in a month, the Saints were able to play in front of an audience.
It was such a delicious story, it seemed like all of us on press row were compelled to write it, this Cinderella team emerging from empty gyms into the national spotlight.
I think most of us who wrote it called it, one way or another, “a once-in-a-lifetime, freak occurrence.”
The Huntsville and regional sports landscape has been deluged with cancellations and postponements because of the COVID-19 virus. Below is a list of events that been effective, and we’ll continue update it:
- The inaugural Huntsville Championship, the PGA Korn Ferry Tour event scheduled for April 23-26 at The Ledges, has been cancelled for this year. The inaugural event will be played in April 2021, with official dates to be announced later. Knight Eady, the tournament management company, worked with the PGA Tour on a possible later 2020 date for the tournament, but the continuing uncertainty of the pro golf schedule made that impossible.
“While extremely unfortunate and disappointing for this first-year event, our tournament officials are already in the planning process to host a great event in April of 2021,” Knight Eady said in a statement. “Our goal has been and will continue to be to put on a first-class event for the City of Huntsville, The Ledges and all of our tournament partners. The health and safety of spectators, players, sponsors, volunteers, employees and all associated with the tournament is and will continue to be our No. 1 priority” Knight Eady is in the process of reaching out to sponsors, volunteers and ticket buyers for details specific to their situations.
- The decision that students will not return to the classroom this semester at Alabama’s public schools impacts athletics, and Huntsville. All spring sports are now cancelled, as are championship events. Huntsville was to host the Alabama High School Athletic Association state soccer championship May 7-9.
- The Rocket City Trash Pandas’ season opener is still undetermined as Major League Baseball and its Minor League Baseball partner await an end to the pandemic. The Trash Pandas were to open the season April 9 at Birmingham and then hold the home opener April 15 at Toyota Field. MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred revealed several contingency plans in an ESPN interview that would still salvage much of the season.
- The two college games and three high school games scheduled for Toyota Field have been cancelled. UAH was to have played Montevallo on March 20 and Alabama A&M was to have played Alabama State March 22. Grissom was to play Decatur on March 28 and there was an April 6 doubleheader with Bob Jones playing Hartselle and James Clemens meeting Austin seems in doubt.
- The UAH men’s and women’s basketball teams, both of which earned berths in the NCAA Division II Tournament, have seen their seasons come to a close. All spring sports have been suspended at UAH and Alabama A&M. The NCAA announced on March 13 that athletes in spring sports would not have to forfeit a year’s eligibility because of the aborted season.
- The Huntsville Havoc season has come to an end. The Southern Professional Hockey League announced it has ended its 2020 season. The Havoc, two-time defending champions of the SPHL, was in third place and had already clinched a playoff berth.
Spring sports at Alabama and Auburn have cancelled, as have spring football practice and spring games. SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey said the league is looking at options to make up the missed practice time.
The Coastal Collegiate Sports Association has canceled its 2020 CCSA Beach Volleyball Championship, scheduled April 16-19 at Huntsville’s John Hunt Park.
The Alabama State Games, to be held in Dothan after their two-year run in Huntsville, have been postponed until July 31-August 2. Athletes wishing to register for one of the more than two dozen events may do so at https://www.asffoundation.org/alabama-state-games.