There's been a lot of strange things to see in 23 years on this job, but Friday and Saturday's games at the LHSAA Marsh Madness tournament certainly ranks near the top.
I had no idea what to expect with seven championship games with no fans in a huge arena. But the outcome surely exceeded my expectations.
The quality of play was as good as ever, and the players and coaches did a rather remarkable job of creating an entertaining atmosphere on their own.
The first signal that things were going to be strange was meowing from the Hicks High School bench while opponent Pleasant Hill was shooting free throws. I'm not sure if that was a normal distraction tactic or an homage to the felines that used to inhabit the Burton Complex, but it was interesting, if not effective, as Pleasant Hill came away with the win.
I was curious as to how the players would react to the empty arena, but the Pleasant Hill and Hicks kids both said it didn't make too much of a difference.
Game MVP Montorious Burrough of Pleasant Hill, a senior, said he was initially upset his mother would not be on hand for his final game, but didn't have a hard time moving past it once head coach Stephen Burch told him he had to let it go.
Burch explained that the team's area hotel arranged for the Pleasant Hill fans to watch the live television broadcast of the game together in a hotel conference room, which helped calm the players before the game.
The staffs of the LHSAA and Burton Complex did everything they could to create a big-game atmosphere for the participating kids, keeping all of the fancy introductions with accompanying music and turned-off arena lights, the national anthem before every game and introducing every player on every team.
The players more than held up their end of the bargain, with great performances and games throughout the two days. Pleasant Hill used a big fourth quarter to beat Hicks for the first time in three tries this season to earn the Class C title. Doyline used a monstrous performance from Deccari Markray (25 points, 26 rebounds) and a late winner from Jamari Markray to topple two-time defending champion Simsboro in the Class B championship program.
Port Allen went to overtime to topple two-time defending champion Rayville in Class 2A. Class 3A delivered a one-point final with Bossier edging Wossman, after each advanced to the finals by winning its semifinal game by two points.
The Class 5A game was another one-pointer, with Alexandria claiming its first-ever state championship.
The excitement from the games and player performances were somewhat muted by seeing all of the pleas to keep playing from spring sport players and coaches. LHSAA reiterated again in a memo released Monday that they are committed to holding championships if state/federal laws allow. Recent trends don't look good on that front, but at least the LHSAA is keeping hope alive during these most uncertain times.
High school athletes are often taken for granted. They put in long hours for little in the way of tangible rewards. They handle pressure with great aplomb, both on and off the fields of play.
It is painful to see so many lose their last chance to play due to circumstances out of their control. Here's hoping things work out so that they can have some way to finish out this year. If they get it, we can count on them to make the most of it and bring needed cheer to area communities.