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Panther coaches describe missed opportunities, learned lessons for spring ‘20

By Staff | May 15, 2020

Missed opportunities, lessons learned and hope for the future marked the 2020 spring season for Rugby High School athletes, according to Panther coaching staff.

An executive order by Gov. Doug Burgum halted school programs as of March 16, just as the Panther boys’ basketball squad clinched the Region Six title and set their sights on state. The North Dakota High School Activities Association announced the suspension of the State Class B tournament shortly after that.

Coach Mike Santjer recalled, “I think they were excited to hope that the coronavirus thing was going to clear up to the point that we would be able to play. What it would look like, nobody really knew, but just to get a chance to prove and put their talents on display at the state level so everybody would get a chance to see how talented this team really was.”

An announcement by the NDHSAA May 2 dashed the Panthers’ hopes for a tournament when the association said they would cancel all spring sports and activities for the remainder of the 2020 school year.

“It was tough just to know how hard all the kids worked to get to that point and all the time they put in and then to finally achieve it and then have it taken away,” Santjer said.

“I think most of them are just really heartbroken that (the cancellation) happened,” Santjer added. “I think the way the state handled it as far as holding off and not making a decision right away, (the team) all had it in the back of their heads it was going to happen. I mostly think they were heartbroken because the not knowing was hard.”

“The only contact I’ve actually had with them since (the tournament was suspended) was through group text messages,” Santjer said. “We were together to celebrate the region tournament win on Thursday, March 13, and we haven’t been back together since.”

“We haven’t had a lot of contact except some text messages back and forth with the kids, but (I told them) just to be proud of what they’ve done,” Santjer noted. “They put an extreme amount of effort and time and commitment into doing this. Life isn’t always as black and white as it may seem. Sometimes it may throw a wrench into things. But they accepted it for the most part, and there are still some things possibly in the works to play the tournament out, not at the state level.”

“I think, looking back, most of them will probably have learned something from it and grown a little bit as young men to know that life isn’t always perfect, and even though you work so hard for things, it doesn’t always turn out,” Santjer added.

Other Panther athletes with hopes for state recognition faced disappointment when the tournament and spring sports season were canceled.

“We had two teams (girls’ track and field and girls’ cross country) that were state champions last year,” said RHS Panther track and cross country coach Bill Jansen in an email to the Tribune. “They did not get the opportunity to get recognized on statewide television at the State Class B Boys’ Basketball tournament in the Parade of Champions which is a pretty cool experience that doesn’t come around very often.”

“I have been in contact with the girls since we were shut down. I have been texting them once a week and have been posting suggested workouts on our website,” Jansen said. ” We had been practicing (conditioning) for about a week. The communication has been one way for the most part, so I haven’t talked to a lot of the kids.”

“The ones I have been in touch with are definitely disappointed but seem to be handling it well,” Jansen added. “We understand there are going to be things in our lives that end abruptly and hurt but we need to learn how to move on.”

“I know I have had some trouble not being able to see and interact with the kids on a daily basis. Sometimes you forget how much the kids mean to you and why you chose to do this as a career,” Jansen noted. “I feel bad for all our athletes, but especially for the seniors. We are the defending state champions and so we had big plans coming into this season,” Jansen said of the 2019 Panther Girls Track and Field team. “The seniors didn’t have the opportunity to lead their team to a possible repeat. We have some very good athletes coming back next year but our seniors will not get to be a part of that, which is a shame.”

Jansen said senior athletes hoping for track and field scholarships would likely not be affected by the cancellation.

“The college recruiting and scholarship offering process is usually done before the spring season, so those that are planning on participating in college have already been through that process and yes, as far as I know, they will be receiving whatever was offered previously,” Jansen said.

Santjer said he knew of two 2020 Panther graduates with basketball scholarships.

“I know that Trace Goven is going to play basketball at Lake Region and Jaden Hamilton is going to play at Jamestown,” Santjer indicated.

“Cody Jundt is going to do track at Valley City, and Dawson Schepp is going to do track at Jamestown. Trace and Jaden are the only two I know for a fact that are going on to play basketball,” Santjer said.

Santjer said due to the basketball tournament’s abrupt cancellation, some North Dakota high school sports organizers are exploring a way to hold an unofficial tournament in June.

“They’re kind of excited about trying to make something like that happen. It’s more to prove what could’ve been, possibly,” Santjer said.

“The eight teams that made it to state were going to be invited. It wouldn’t obviously be state sanctioned or anything like that, but at least they’d play out the tournament to see what was or what could’ve been.”

Santjer said he was also honored to learn he was named to the coaching staff of the North Dakota Lions All Stars. Goven, Hamilton and Devan Michels were named to the team.

Santjer, who has coached past all-star teams, said, “It’s exciting to have kids nominated for the team and make the team. I know Devan and Trace and Jaden will enjoy it. It will be a blast.”

“As of now, it’s still scheduled to take place,” Santjer said of the July 13-14 tournament. “I’m not sure how it will look, but in the past a lot of people have shown up to watch these guys play.”

Baseball and golf have also been canceled.

Santjer, who coaches the boys’ golf team, said he has not met with the players this season. “We’ve just been encouraging kids to get out to the course,” he said. “Fortunately, with this spring we’ve had, we actually had quite a few nice days and the course has been open probably earlier than it would’ve been. I’ve been encouraging them to get out to the driving range and the golf course and work on some things.”

“I’ve been out there myself quite a few times. I’ve seen kids from the golf team out there practicing. It’s unfortunate for those guys as well, not just the basketball team, but all the spring sports that we won’t partake in some of those things but, the kids have been out there. They’ve been taking advantage of it, which is great to see,” Santjer added.

Girls’ golf coach Adam Chausee said he also didn’t have an opportunity to meet with his team this year. “Our preseason meeting was actually scheduled for the week after the shut down so I was never able to meet with the girls face to face and we were not allowed to practice yet,” he wrote in an email to the Tribune.

“I have reached out and talked to them and they are all staying positive,” Chaussee said of the athletes. “Our seniors are disappointed that they were not able to compete in their last season but they understand the situation and that there is life outside of sports. I’m proud of the girls and how they are handling the disappointment of not having a season and how they are all staying positive.”

RHS baseball coach Beau Eriksson said of his team, “I think they all handled it in their own way. Some were optimistic about there being a season and tackling their school work in a different manner, while some became more concerned about other things in their individual lives, which is fine.”

Eriksson said he “provided workouts and tried to give them looking something to look forward to by being positive about the situation. Practices had not started yet when the news broke. We were supposed to start that Monday (March 16).”

“I would’ve thoroughly enjoyed having a season and being able to coach the boys, especially knowing how long everyone was isolated and quarantined for,” Eriksson added. “But some things in life are bigger than sports and that’s one of theses situations.”

“My wife and I had our first child in early March before all of this,” Eriksson said. “So, we understood everything that was going on in the state and nation regarding the pandemic as we were so concerned about our newborn being safe. Hopefully this is a life lesson for all of us to appreciate what we have and take advantage of everyday life.”

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