Sixth in a series
FLORENCE, S.C. — It was March 11 when the NBA shut down its season following a positive COVID-19 test by Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert.
That was the first domino to fall in the sports realm, and the question that lingered in the air was how long would it be before events at the state and local levels began to follow?
For the Pee Dee and Florence area, it was the very next day as not only did the Florence-Darlington Technical College baseball and softball teams suspend their seasons, but the South Carolina Independent School Association halted play as well.
Things started to snowball from there as Francis Marion and Coker universities saw their seasons end the following day. On March 15, Gov. Henry McMaster declared that all schools would be shut down until at least April 1 — thus ending all South Carolina High School League athletic activities in the process.
High school coaches held out hope that some type of season could be salvaged, but the restart date turned out to be a continually moving target.
McMaster’s March 25 announcement that schools would be closed until the end of April was viewed as writing on the wall that the season was likely in serious jeopardy.
“Honestly, as far as spring sports go, it’s not a good sign,” South Florence baseball coach Kenny Gray said last spring following the announcement. “… Everything changes day to day and week to week. You really don’t know what’s going to happen in the next few weeks. We can hold out hope that they’ll be able to salvage something out of the season, but honestly, if we don’t go back to school until May, it’s going to be very difficult to try to squeeze anything in as far as spring sports are concerned.”
It was not to be. On April 22, all schools were closed through the end of the spring semester — proving to be the final straw for high school sports.
"I'm just very disappointed. I don't know what else to say," Hartsville baseball coach Tony Gainey said last spring. His 5-0 team was one win away from giving him career victory No. 300.
"I understand, though. But I'm still just very disappointed. I've got six seniors that are done with wearing a Red Fox uniform, and it meant so much to those guys being a part of a team and part of the program. I don't get to honor them. I've got to find another way to do that. I've got some ideas since they didn't get a senior night — that night for them and their families to be honored, and that bothers me. The players and the coaching staff had been working so hard, all the way back to September. The season doesn't just start in January, February and March. It starts about when school starts. People don't realize the commitment coaches and players put into this. It's not just a spring sport, it's a year-round thing.”
Disappointment eventually turned to anxiousness as sports leagues across the nation wondered if or when things would begin again.
The answer came the last week of April, as NASCAR announced it would be the first major sport to return to action — at Darlington Raceway (UFC and Professional Bull Riders had already started back).
"It's an honor for Darlington Raceway to resume the 2020 NASCAR season in just a few short weeks with three races in four days," Darlington Raceway President Kerry Tharp said at the time. "Darlington is one of the most iconic and historic tracks in the sport and will be a tremendous backdrop when NASCAR returns to racing. We certainly appreciate the support from our state's leadership in working with NASCAR to allow us to host these events."
The “Track Too Tough to Tame” hosted a trio of races between May 17 and May 21 (two Cup, one Xfinity), albeit with no fans. Still, it was a step back to normalcy.
Things took another step on May 30 when McMaster said youth and adult sports leagues could start practice. That opened the door for the South Carolina American Summer League, which stepped in to fill the void after the American Legion baseball season was canceled.
After much delay, Derick Urquhart and his Post 1 squad took the field in late June for the first time and wound up completing the season on schedule.
“It’s almost a sigh of relief,” Florence starter and Darlington High standout Anthony Hopkins said of getting back on the field. “We really didn’t even get half a season in school this year, so it’ll be exciting to get back out there. ... They turned a horrible situation into something that’s probably going to end up being great in the end. We kind of started the summer off with nothing and now we’ve got a lot.”
Around that same time, high school teams were finally able to begin summer workouts in preparation for what they hoped would be a fall sports season.
That came to pass with a slightly revamped schedule, enhanced safety measures and protocols and a return of at least some spectators. SCISA began play in football on Aug. 28 and the SCHSL followed about a month later on the last Friday in September.
With the 2A state football championship wrapping up on Dec. 18 and the state cheer finals completed the next day, all of the fall sports were able to finish their seasons following a summer when it seemed like even a partial season might be out of the question.