U-D Jesuit's Pat Donnelly fears player exodus with latest winter sports delay

David Goricki
The Detroit News

On to winter sports and basketball, or is it?

The Michigan High School Athletic Assocation released a new schedule for winter sports on Jan. 14 and it wasn’t one that coaches enjoyed seeing, but one they could live with.

U-D Jesuit head coach Pat Donnelly

It was then that the MHSAA said that first contact practices could begin Feb. 1 and first games on Feb. 4 with girls basketball starting its district play March 22 and boys basketball on March 23 with girls basketball State Final Four on April 7-9 and boys on April 8-10.

Coaches were allowed to have non-contact practices until that Feb. 1 date but there’s only so much they could do with those drills.

On Friday Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and state health department officials announced winter contact sports, including girls and boys basketball, competitive cheer, ice hockey and wrestling, must remain non-contact through Feb. 21.

Pat Donnelly is one of the most successful high school basketball coaches in the state, guiding U-D Jesuit to a 221-60 record in 12 years. The school won the Class A state championship with Mr. Basketball Cassius Winston in 2016.

He has another Top 10 team this year, but will anyone get a chance to see U-D Jesuit play?

“It was a very difficult conversation," Donnelly said. "We walked into practice last night at 5:30 and all these guys had already heard about it on social media and everything else.

“The difficulty is trying to keep them motivated, but the other difficulty is trying to keep them here. A couple of kids came up to me and said I’m thinking about prep school, I’ve been contacted by these schools, I’ve been contacted by some people to start a club team so we can play out of state. We need to play.

“That’s the difficulty, trying to come up with alternatives to allow them to play and provide those opportunities that they all want so badly and need so badly. A lot of these kids are looking at this as an opportunity to pay for college,

“I completely understand why they are looking for these opportunities. I don’t understand the decision process, why the decision was made to push the season back even further. I’m extremely disappointed and quite honestly I’m sitting here contemplating what can we do to provide the opportunities for these young men so they get in front of college coaches. They are getting things done in the classroom and they need the opportunity to do it on the court. That’s something that we promised them and we need to find a way to deliver it.”

No doubt, it would be difficult to have a month of non-contact practice.

“We’ve been doing it for a week and the interest level drops because they want to play. They want to compete because that’s what basketball is,” Donnelly said. “A lot of these kids, and I don’t want to beat that drum, but this is what they do, this is their release, this is their time away from class, time away from all the hectic things that are going on in life. This is the two hours a day that they can forget about everything and do what they enjoy, and when that’s taken away from them there’s a lot of concerns.

“I don’t think you can do it (month of non-contact practice). I was just talking to some people here (U-D Jesuit) yesterday, look if this is when you’re thinking, 'Oh we’re going to reschedule basketball to start after February 20th you may as well cancel the season and let the kids play club.'”

When asked if he thought the current situation could have led players like Fletcher Loyer of Clarkston to leave for Indiana, Donnelly replied: “I don’t think there’s any question that kids have moved because they knew there was a chance that this could continue. I just saw the other day that (former UDM player) Chuck Bailey took his son (Chuck Bailey Jr., Birmingham Groves) to Arizona to play in prep school.

“They are playing high school basketball in Ohio, playing in Indiana and interesting enough yesterday at the same time Michigan is saying we’re pushing things back, two states that have been really strong in their conviction that we shouldn’t play sports decided to move ahead, Illinois and New York, two Democrat states. New York is starting contact sports February 1st.

“Here we are surrounded by Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and New York that are all playing. We’re one of a few states in the U.S., us and Hawaii and California who aren’t going to play.”

So, what does Donnelly plan to do?

“I’m just really struggling with the decision and I feel horrible for our guys and what I’m trying to do is provide opportunities for our seniors and trying to not lose our underclassmen,” Donnelly said.

“I would love to think, and this is just me talking, that there could be a mass movement of presidents, superintendents, principals, athletic directors, coaches within leagues that could organize as a league and then leagues could get together and go to the MHSAA and it would be such a groundswell to the MHSAA that the MHSAA says to the governor we’re moving forward, we understand your concerns, but we can’t afford to do this for the health, safety and well being for all of our young people, boys and girls in all these sports that have been delayed. That’s for the well-being of the MHSAA too, because a lot of people are going to leave the state.

“I told our president yesterday, that the prep schools are flooding social media right now in the state of Michigan, saying come down here and play, so I hope that there’s a movement to try and get this changed very quickly and if it doesn’t change quickly I think you’ll see another movement with high school teams opting out of the MHSAA to play club basketball.”

Donnelly could even make a radical move.

“As a coach, I’m struggling,” Donnelly said. “Would it behoove me to say, you know what, I promised these kids I’d give them experience, I promised them that I would coach them. Would it behoove me to say, you know what I’m resigning as the basketball coach at U-of-D to coach the club team? I don’t know, but it has crossed my mind. I feel those are the thoughts that are going through a lot of people’s minds right now, including mine.”