With the State Tournament upon us once again, it brings back all the memories of the chaos that was the end of the 2020 season. Looking back one year later, I have tried to understand the events that took place and learn from that part of history we lived through.
Most of you probably have a general idea of who I am, but in case you do not, my name is Jason Dechant and I have lived in Kit Carson my whole life. However, there were 6 years I chose to live in Kansas to play basketball at Hesston College and Tabor College and periodically study. Basketball has been a huge part of my life since I was old enough to remember. I was introduced to the game by my Dad, Coach Jim Trahern, Lane Gooden and the rest of the Travelers town team basketball roster. Basketball is a beautiful game, and it was also the first real outlet for my competitiveness.
I thought my competitive basketball days were over, unless you count unending enthusiastic support for my Kansas Jayhawks and the Denver Nuggets. In 2017 Coach Trahern retired and my brother, Damon Dechant, became the head basketball coach for Kit Carson and asked if I would be one of his assistants. I accepted and basketball was back in my life. It may not always look like it when watching me coach, but I do love it.
That first year we inherited a young team with determination and the want to. They wanted to get to the state basketball tournament and to compete. The best thing about coaching in a small town is that you and your team are a family. It is about you and your teammates and your community. It becomes a “us against the world” kind of attitude and that is exactly what we had. Our first two seasons did not end the way that we wanted, we came up short. It was all in and all hands-on deck to get that gold ball in 2020.
Now when I say all hands-on deck when you coach basketball, and you are in agriculture it really is all hands-on deck. Betsy (sports editor for the Independent) can attest to how much our wives Gina and Amanda do for us throughout the season. That does not even take into account the countless friends that help us out as well, and there is no way I could forget my parents Paul and El. Again, it’s what makes the whole experience so great. A true community effort.
Things in life can get weird. I can remember sitting in the office with Damon right after the first of the year and we were talking about this mystery virus that was hitting China. At the time we really didn’t give it much thought, we had no idea what this virus was going to do to our season in a few short months. By regionals, the virus was in the state and we were holding our breath to make it through one more week. By the time we left for state things got more serious and by the end it was the strangest and saddest 40 hours in Greeley.
Now, before we even left Kit Carson the hits started coming. Wednesday the 11th was the day it was announced that there were more and more cases appearing in Colorado. Upon this news, without ever thinking we would not finish the season, my Dad who is a cancer survivor and is immune suppressed called his doctors to ask if he should go or if the risk was too great. He was advised that my mom and him should not go. It was devastating to know your biggest supporters would not be there in person. I wasn’t able to leave with the team because I needed to get chores done since I was hoping we would be gone for the next three days. On the way up I was of course listening to the Nuggets when it was announced that Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz had tested positive, and the NBA postponed all games except the Nuggets. The next blow came when CHSAA announced that there would be no fans allowed at the state tournament games. Again, when you are a small school everyone becomes so invested in the team that the news was devastating. However, we were not ever worried about how it would affect the players because with this group they would have been ready to compete on an outdoor court in a snowstorm with no one watching.
When I finally arrived in Greeley to meet up with the team. To say the situation was surreal is an understatement. We were all living in slow motion it seemed. Always waiting for the next shoe to drop without ever mentioning the unthinkable, which was that we would not get our chance.
After ordering out and getting everyone settled and bed checks done the news came that we could have 4 spectators per player. Chaos ensued. Wanting Damon to get his rest, Sara and Mike Crawford and I started doing our best to have the kids get a hold of their parents and anyone else who wanted to come on the allowed extra spots. Finally, it was time for bed, and we hoped that the chaos was over.
Upon waking up the next morning the cancellation of college tournaments filled ESPN and the unthinkable thought started to creep into our heads. What if the state tournament was cancelled? Damon and I went over to the gym to scout and watch the games before us to get an idea of future opponents. If I had thought that everything was surreal up to this point, entering that gym was a shock to the system. I have been going to state tournaments since I was a little kid, and I can assure you this was not a state tournament. I just kept telling myself we were still here, and we were still playing. I remember Damon and I talking and maybe it was a moment of clarity that only reality can bring, but we talked about enjoying every single moment about the upcoming game. We did not know what was going to happen, but we knew we had to enjoy going to battle with these boys in case it was the last time. We did. The game itself was an up and down affair. It was a state game. It was rough and we lost Jayden to a sprained ankle and then next, came Cordell hurting his knee. I remember thinking to myself is this real? It was, but in the wake of those two injuries something happened that I will always chose to take from this experience. It was that every single player on our team stepped up and played tremendous and with such heart. Sonny became the leader even after seeing both his brothers injured. Sophomores Dan Arnold and Brett Mayhan stepped up. Seniors Dave Arnold, Brock Weiand, Brayden Bogenhagen, Joe Bryan, and Peter Hornung became even more determined to finish strong and seal the victory. Which We did.
There was joy in the locker room but also apprehension. We knew Cordell’s knee was bad and that it would take a lot of work from Kit Carson athletic trainer Richard Hogan to get Jayden back on the court the next day. Our focus remained on the next day. However, when driving back to the hotel Damon said something that will stick with me forever. He said, “You know, if that was it, other than hoisting the Gold ball, I can’t think of a better way for this group to go out.” I agreed and we listed the ways that the boys had made us proud and how they had overcome adversity in the game.
Finally, after settling in for the night and preparing for the next day with scouting reports and video we all turned in for the night. Then, the unthinkable decision came down, CHSAA had cancelled the tournament. Our state tournament and our run for a championship was done. It may be humorous now but at the time I was upset, and somehow Coach Tom Rhodes and I both slept through text and calls and bangs on the door to wake up and meet with the team. Damon still has not been able to tell me exactly what the meeting was like, but I am grateful that he had his moment with the team that he had poured himself into. Upon waking up I received the news. Devastating is an understatement. Your heart sinks and you’re not sure if its ever going to rise again. I went down to breakfast almost in a state of shock. Sara Crawford was there, it always seems like she’s there for us, and after a long embrace, some of the boys came down and we began to let some of the finality out. I do not remember much else after that other than the texts and calls I got from people in the community and the surrounding area. One text in particular is from Shawn Randel and it still sits on my phone today. Without divulging what it says his text is the reason that I think I began to heal. We left Greeley roughly 40 hours after we had arrived. What a whirlwind of emotions it was to get home and see the community waiting for us at the school when we arrived back in Kit Carson.
You see, the thing about being a part of something bigger than yourself is that no matter when it ends it hurts. Everything good in life must come to an end. It’s just that sometimes we get so wrapped up in the destination that we honestly do forget the journey.
The truth is that there hasn’t been a day that’s gone by in the last year that I haven’t thought about it and thought about “What If?” Looking back, I could have handled it if we had been beaten, or if we had done something strategically that we could have changed, but neither of those things were the reason. Sometimes in life there are things that you just cannot control. The reality of this is that this is all about basketball and a moment in time that we lost. One parent always reminds me that we are not the only ones that went through this. There were other teams in southeast Colorado that probably have similar feelings as us along with our very good friend Ty Trahern whose Pueblo West team was in the semis as well. The Walsh boys, Springfield girls and South Baca girls all have the same feelings to sort through I’m sure.
What I and hopefully the boys learned from this experience is that sometimes you do not reach the goal and it sometimes can be no doing of your own. Life also is not fair. When I look back now, I think I took for granted all the little moments you have with a team during a season. The practices, the bus trips, the meals together, it all adds up to the sum of being fulfilled. High school sports in a small town cannot be only about winning. It must be about making good people. When we lose sight of that, we lose the joy, the perspective, and that gratitude that we should have. You also lose sight of all the people and I mean ALL the people that go into even having a season in a small town. You have custodians, bookkeepers, clock keepers, teachers, administrators, parents and yes, officials, that all in some ways have a stake in high school basketball.
I think we also learned to not let bitterness sink in. I’m sure there were rivals and others that maybe took a little pleasure in seeing it happen, maybe not. We try not to think about the people that did not say anything more than the people that did. People often ask do you agree with the decision, well, of course I do not. However, whatever you think of the virus at the time we didn’t know much. I think empathy is an emotion that doesn’t get used enough these days. I would definitely not want to be in the position to cancel a state tournament. The people in charge I’m sure feel the agony that most of us do as well. The bottom line is that you define the moment, or you let the moment define you. We will not let this define us and if we are ever lucky enough to win another state championship a big part of it will go to the 2019 and 2020 team as well.
The 2019 and 2020 Kit Carson Wildcats will always be remembered by me as the hardest playing, most enthusiastic, most relentless, and most competitive team I have ever had the privilege of being a part of, so far. I’ll remember the first pumps, bus trips, and how much they made me love my town and the game of basketball.
So, to all the teams out there that are competing for a title this week and may stumble upon this. Take a moment, breathe it in, soak it up, and enjoy your journey, because no matter how it ends it will end. and it’s not the end I hope you remember most, it’s the journey.