By Katy Savage
Elizabeth Bailey was in Publications class at West Rutland High School on Tuesday, March 23, when she got a phone call that she needed to gather all her belongings and go to the art room.
When she got to the room around 11:45 a.m., Bailey saw her basketball coach, principal, guidance counselor and athletic director waiting for her.
“I initially thought I was in trouble for something,” said Bailey, 18, a senior. “I got a nervous feeling.”
Eventually, her teammates on the West Rutland girls’ varsity basketball team walked into the room. The five student starters had been told they needed to leave school immediately. They were told they were exposed to Covid-19 in a basketball game against Mount Saint Joseph Academy five days earlier. They wouldn’t be able to play in a semifinal game in their home gym scheduled that night.
“I was just shocked,” said Bailey. “It was a lot of information at once. I don’t really cry, so that was a big thing for me. I was angry, I was sad, I was annoyed, I was disappointed.”
Bailey and teammates junior Anna Cyr, senior Kiana Grabowski, sophomore Mallory Hogan, and 8th-grader Peyton Guay, were the only players that had been in the game against Mount Saint Joseph for 15 minutes.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines close contact as someone who has been within 6 feet of an infected person for 15 continuous minutes within a 24 hour period.
It was devastating to Bailey, who hoped to win a state championship her senior year.
“To have that ripped for me, it still hasn’t really set in,” Bailey said.
The West Rutland team was No. 1 in its division with an undefeated 10-0 record going into the game and was the favorite to win the D4 state championships. The team lost 44-22 against Danville that day.
It was one of the hardest days of West Rutland Athletic Director Joseph Harrington’s career. He was informed of the exposure around 8 a.m. on Tuesday and contacted the Vermont Dept. of Health for advice. Harrington looked at ways the starters could play, but said there was no way around it.
“A lot happened in a short amount of time,” he said. “We’re talking five really dedicated athletes. There was no good way to tell them they weren’t going to be able to play. I’m not a very emotional person, but that was an emotional moment.”
The team had been beating opponents by at least 20 or 30 points up until that game.
“We were going to win the game that night, there’s no question about that,” Harrington said.
Peyton Guay, 13, who made the varsity team as an 8th-grader and quickly became a starter, immediately started crying.
“I was just heartbroken and I was still heartbroken at the end of the day,” she said.
Guay’s mother, Melissa, said Peyton called her that morning to pick her up from school but couldn’t get the words out to describe what was happening.
“To have all five of those kids walk out of that school in sheer devastation, I could still cry over it right now,” Melissa said.
The players dressed up for school that day and spent the weekend watching film of Danville’s games. They expected to win.
“I was speechless,” senior Grabowski said.
Harrington took the remaining 10 athletes on the team into a separate meeting that day and informed them the starters couldn’t play. A group of five 8th-graders, four freshmen and one sophomore, with little playing experience, filled in.
“They were in a very tough situation,” Harrington said. “They felt the weight of the world on their shoulders. They did exceptionally well.”
Coach Carl Serrani, who is a maintenance worker at the school, immediately shifted his attention to preparing the young team to do their best. Despite their age, Serrani believed in their talent.
“If I didn’t believe in them, I wouldn’t have thrown them to the wolves,” Serrani said.
The starters met with their teammates on Zoom around 4:30 p.m., right before the warmup on Tuesday, and again at 5:15 p.m., before the game started at 6. The starters gave the young team advice.
“I told them not to dwell on their mistakes,” said Hogan, a sophomore, who said she struggles with that herself.
Other starters assured the team they would be proud no matter what.
The starters watched a live stream of the game on YouTube. Though the team started strong, it was clear by the third quarter that the team was probably going to lose.
“It was difficult to not be there and help my team out,” junior Cyr said.
The West Rutland team has been to semifinals for the past 10 years in a row under Serrani, who has been the coach for 23 years. The team won the state championships in 2019.
Serrani said this season has been “like none other.” He was proud of the team for not forfeiting the semifinals.
“They were wide-eyed, but they stepped up to the task,” Serrani said.
The team had made it through the season with no Covid cases. All of the starters tested negative for Covid-19 on Friday, March 26 and planned to return to school. But, when it came to the finals, Danville had to forfeit due to a Covid exposure. Proctor won the state championship by default and the West Rutland athletes who played in the semifinal game had to quarantine.
The season ended in a whirlwind and a week later, the loss still hurt.
“It’s going to take a long time to get over it,” Harrington said. “It is what it is.”