‘There’s a lot of pain.’ Charlotte high schools are stopping most sports as NC plays on

Langston Wertz Jr.
·8 min read

Hough High School athletic director Masanori Toguchi is a former offensive and defensive lineman at Wake Forest. He is a large man, standing 6-foot-3. And he couldn’t talk about Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ decision to pause athletics Thursday for one minute before his voice broke.

“I get that it’s safety, right. I get that,” Toguchi said. “I support the decisions that are made, but at the same time, there’s a lot of pain. We put so much into this, man. We put a lot into it. But I understand.”

On Thursday, during an emergency school board meeting, the district decided to keep students in remote learning through at least Feb. 12 because of rising COVID-19 numbers in the region. With some exceptions, no CMS teams will play or practice until at least Feb. 15.

Thursday’s debate and vote was expected after a regular Tuesday board meeting, where officials were told of a new directive from Mecklenburg County Public Health Director Gibbie Harris. The guidance, which is not mandatory, asks schools and businesses to shift all operations to remote platforms unless in-person activity is required. Harris’ directive is in effect through Feb. 2.

On Wednesday, at least three private schools — Charlotte Country Day, Charlotte Latin and Providence Day — decided to pause athletics for 10 days due to the COVID spike and that same guidance.

For CMS schools, the athletic pause will cause a lot of ripple effects.

High school boys and girls basketball teams, most of which have played just three games since the season began earlier this month, won’t practice or play for a month. When they return Feb. 15, there will be one week left in the regular season. Toguchi said schools will be scrambling to figure out playoff eligibility.

High school swimmers and divers, who began their season last month, won’t get to finish. The NCHSAA swimming regionals are scheduled for Feb. 4-6 and the state finals Feb. 10-13. When CMS’ pause ends Feb. 15, the swimming season will be over.

Soccer and lacrosse teams began practice Jan. 11 and were scheduled to start their seasons Jan. 25. The final scheduled regular-season date for those sports is March 12. The pause will take away about half of their seasons.

Volleyball and cross-country teams will be allowed to continue because those seasons are already in the playoffs. However, the district said those teams cannot practice on or off campus while the pause is in effect.

State volleyball playoffs continued Thursday night. Three CMS teams — Ardrey Kell, Myers Park and Providence — played second round matches. Myers Park and Ardrey Kell lost, but Providence advanced to the third round.

The cross-country regionals are Friday and state finals next week.

CMS Superintendent Earnest Winston said at Thursday’s emergency board meeting that he didn’t want to cut off athletes who were participating in the playoffs.

“I believe there are times when an exception should be made, and I believe this is one of those times,” Winston said at the end of an the meeting, “And I believe it’s in the best interest of kids, which is the lens in which I filter all decisions.”

Emotional moment for Hough swimmers

Toguchi was preparing to break the news to his school’s athletes Thursday morning when swim coach Meredith Eyler asked if he would wait to allow Eyler to call her seniors.

They will never get to swim for Hough again. The Huskies have won five of the past nine state championships.

As Eyler made the call, Toguchi was with her.

“It was heartbreaking,” he said. “It was an emotional moment to watch. Our kids, not only at Hough, but across the district, work hard and look forward to competing for championships. That’s a hard one to swallow because they were so close to postseason.”

The Observer contacted three swim coaches at other schools. All declined to comment on the record, saying it was too emotional.

NCHSAA Commissioner: HS sports not pushing spread

N.C. High School Athletic Association Commissioner Que Tucker said it was “disappointing” that CMS swimming and diving would have to end the season this way.

“We had been made aware that this was a possibility,” Tucker told The Observer, “and we had hoped that would not be the case, not so much because we think that sports is the end-all and be-all, but because we are education-based athletics and we believe we have a role in trying to help our young people who participate in our programs to stay grounded, stay motivated, stay focused.

“However, we respect when (school systems) make decisions because that is their responsibility and their charge, and it becomes our role to help schools work within those parameters.”

Tucker said she didn’t know of any other public school districts taking a pause at this time, and she praised N.C. systems — including CMS — with following COVID safety protocols during the return to sports.

Because of the pandemic, the NCHSAA pushed the start of sports from August to November, including moving football to February and basketball to January.

“We have had a lot of teams that have had to be quarantined,” Tucker said. “But it would be unfair for anyone to say that high school athletics is seen as a spreader or a super-spreader. ... Here’s my hope: When we get through this week, we’ll look at a full two weeks since we came back from (the holiday) break, and perhaps we’ll round the corner from where this (holiday) spread has occurred and start to see those cases come down.”

Football, basketball will deal with effects of the pause

For CMS football teams, Tucker feels that teams will still be able to start the season on time. NCHSAA teams can begin practice Feb. 8 and the season begins Feb. 26.

Tucker thinks the CMS teams which will now begin one week later, can still meet preseason conditioning and contact requirements on time.

Basketball, however, is going to be another issue.

Most CMS teams began playing Jan. 5 or Jan. 6 and have played three of a scheduled 14 games. There are also non-CMS teams in CMS conferences, so the pause will leave schools such as Mooresville, Lake Norman, Porter Ridge and Hickory Ridge with a month’s worth of holes in their schedules.

Still, North Mecklenburg parent Bobby Crawford, whose son, Jordan, starts for the reigning N.C. 4A champions, thinks CMS made the right move.

“They had to do something for the safety of the kids,” Crawford said. “I can’t say it wasn’t with a little disappointment for Jordan. I felt this would be his breakout year and now we’re stuck in limbo, kind of going, ‘What’s next?’ He felt like he was getting his mojo a little bit but he was more concerned about not getting sick, and he understood the school system had to do what they needed to do to keep players safe.”

But players like Crawford still should have a playoff future.

NCHSAA spokesman James Alverson said the association does not have a minimum number of games to be eligible for playoff consideration. He said conferences will determine who receives automatic bids and conference winning percentage will determine any wild cards.

And Tucker said, from the state level, the NCHSAA will work with conferences on scheduling for basketball, soccer and lacrosse.

Toguchi said it’s going to take some time for CMS to come up with a plan, especially for basketball.

“We have not had time to process what’s going to happen when we come back yet,” he said. “We’ll get together, with the guidance of the school district and other members of all the (CMS) conferences, and come up with schedules and how we decide playoff berths.”

Ultimately, Toguchi said, he’s hopeful sports can return Feb. 15, so some of the kids can get back to doing what they love.

“That’s all we can hope for,” he said. “That light still shines, man. We’ve cleaned. We’ve sanitized. We’ve disinfected. We’ve worn masks. We have done mental and social well-being checks. We had that carrot (of playing) to help. We still have got that carrot, but athletics is the window to many schools’ climate and culture, and we just got our cameras up (to stream games with just 25 fans allowed indoors) and kids were buying subscriptions and logging in and feeling they were part of something finally — and now it’s a pause.

“I’m not calling it a shutdown. We’ve got to pause for a minute. It’s time for the community to step up and take it a little more seriously, because one thing I know — from the 19 athletic directors that serve our high schools, and our middle school ADs — that we’re in it for one thing. We’re in it for the kids.”

Staff writer Annie Ma contributed to this story.