Kynli Heist

Tahlequah's Kynli Heist, shown here in a Class 5A Regional Championship game against Claremore on Feb. 29 at the TMAC, is one of three Lady Tiger seniors who will not get to play in this year's state tournament.

Tahlequah Athletic Director Matt Cloud was bitter on Wednesday when he received a phone call.

“I felt gut-punched,” he said Thursday morning from his office at the Tahlequah Multipurpose Activity Center, exactly two weeks after high school sports ceased.

What Cloud heard was inevitable.

“I talked to several different ADs every single day, ‘Hey, what are you guys doing, how are you guys doing this, what’s the new norm for us, what is it?’ Every one of us had talked about sports probably being over,” he said.

High school sports are done.

“It’s almost like losing a loved one. You know they’re sick and you know it’s going to happen but when it hits you, it hits you. You just sink,” Cloud said.

Cloud is still trying to adapt.

“This is my livelihood. This is what I get up every morning to do,” he said. “Now, you just go home after work and you can’t even watch sports on TV. It’s like learning how to live again.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a fiasco.

The Oklahoma State Department of Education made what was an expected decision in closing schools for the remainder of the academic year, including extracurricular activities.

The Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association followed on Thursday and announced the cancellation of the State Basketball Tournaments for Classes 2A, 3A, 4A, 5A and 6A. All spring sports and activities have been scrapped as well.

“It’s weird times. I hate to see this,” Cloud said. “I think the biggest thing is the kids. They don’t understand it, I don’t understand it. I get it, I get the reason why, but I don’t know why now.

“As coaches and adults, the wins are great, the losses aren’t so great, but as coaches I think the hardest part is the time you have with your team is just shaved away.

“I think that’s where some of our coaches are struggling right now, and the way it ended. There’s just no closure, it’s just the finality of you go home one night and sports is over the next day. This is what these coaches do for a living. This is why they get out of bed every morning to coach these kids, teach these kids.”

Tahlequah High School athletics thrived during 2019-20 school year.

It was even a historical year.

The football team did something the program hadn’t done in 28 years. The fastpitch softball team earned a spot in the state tournament, as did both cross country teams. Both basketball teams advanced to the state tournament in the same year for the first time in school history.

“I was looking back on that the other night,” Cloud said. “Cross country sent both teams to the state tournament, softball sends a team to the state tournament, volleyball gets beat in the regional finals, football wins a district championship, both basketball teams go to the state tournament, we send seven kids to the wrestling state tournament...this was probably one of the best years in recent times for sure, but it was one the best years that we’ve had athletically in 20-25 years for sure, maybe in the top 10 in the history of the school.”

It’s not the happy ending Cloud, Tahlequah coaches or athletes wanted, but there are good times to reflect back on.

“The last few days I’ve had a lot of thinking time and I just went through every sport and thought of those seniors, kids you really get to know. You see them laughing, and you see them goofing around in the gym or out on the field..I think the biggest thing we can say is, ‘We’re sorry.’ We don’t understand it. It’s been said 100 times, it’s unprecedented. Well, it is unprecedented. And there’s no playbook for it. These seniors got a quick lesson in life. Life will kick you in the butt a little bit, but it’s how you respond.

“I can say that I’m very proud of this senior class in how hard they worked, how they acted on campus, how they took care of the non-athlete kids. This group of seniors really changed the culture of Tahlequah athletics, without a doubt.”

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