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Time runs out on Austin boys basketball team

It was a strange and sad day for high school squads across the state Friday.

The Austin boys basketball team began the day preparing for a Section 1AAA title game showdown with Albert Lea, but they ended it after school in Ove Berven Gym with tears in their eyes as their season came to a sudden halt by no fault of their own.

It was around noon on Friday the 13th when the Minnesota State High School League announced all winter tournaments had been canceled due to the threat of COVID-19 meaning no champions for boys or girls basketball will be crowned this season. The Packers, who had planned on playing in Mayo Civic Center after school, were left wearing their gray warm-ups that they wear on road trips, their hearts full of hurt.

Austin head coach Kris Fadness has coached for 35 years, but he’s never had a season end anything like this one did. The Packers finish with a record of 23-5 overall, but they weren’t able to get a chance to compete for their seventh state tournament appearance in the last nine years. Austin’s last state team title in any sport was in 1987 and the Packer boys basketball team took third in last year’s state tournament.

“They’re teenagers, they’re emotionally invested and they’ve worked their whole lives to be in a position where they can get to a state tournament and make a name for themselves,” Fadness said. “It’s not only our kids. Albert Lea is a senior laden team. I feel bad for the Albert Lea kids, I feel bad for the Mayo kids and I feel bad for every team and every boy and girl athlete right now, especially the seniors. You don’t get this back. This time doesn’t come back. I feel horrible for those kids.”

While boys section games and girls state games were played as recently as Thursday night, everything came to a stop when the announcement of the cancellations came out in the middle of the day from the MSHSL. Unfortunately for the Packers, and other teams that were still playing, that announcement came randomly, without any warning.

Austin held a full practice Thursday night and the team came into Friday with the expectation of playing a playoff game.

“This is ridiculous. Today what happened is I learned about it through social media after one of our players learned about in class,” Fadness said. “I just wish that the state high school league would’ve given us some time to process this with our kids, rather than have our guys see it in the middle of class.”

As much as Fadness loves basketball, he is completely understanding of the need to stop the season.

“We can’t play. I get it. I understand the pandemic. It’s a major health issue,” Fadness said. “You hate to be scared of the unknown, but you don’t know. Human life is more important than any basketball game that will ever be played.”

With their season officially over, the Packers will say goodbye to eight seniors. Agwa Nywesh has received scholarship offers from Division I and Division II schools, but many of the other Packers may be done playing.

Fadness will miss this group and he wishes they would have had a chance to play out the tournament.

“I feel terrible that Ogur (Gari) got hurt halfway through the year and that he had to go through what he went through,” Fadness said. “The hardest part about being a coach is I want people to like me and when you’re a coach, it’s impossible to get guys to like you. Maybe they’re mad about playing time, or when you said something they perceived it to be hurtful. With all of the seniors we had this year, I couldn’t keep them all happy with playing time. I feel bad that I wasn’t able to make them happy, but those decisions were not personal. I like those guys. They’re good guys.”