Students protest at CIAC office with simple message: ‘Let us play’

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St. Paul basketball player Jade Udoh joined over 300 students last Wednesday to protest the CIAC’s cancellation of winter tournaments. (Photo by Steven Valenti , Republican-American)

CHESHIRE—Chanting “let us play” and waving placards, more than 300 high school students on Wednesday morning protested outside CIAC headquarters a day after the high school sports organization canceled the remainder of this winter’s state tournaments over concerns about the coronavirus outbreak.

The protest, intended to vent students’ anger over being denied a shot at a state title, commenced at 10 a.m. and lasted for about 90 minutes before most students, coaches and parents started to filter away.

Among the protesters were about 20 Pomperaug High athletes from the boys swim, girls basketball and hockey teams at the Southbury school.

“We’re really upset. We’ve worked hard for four months, and we should be able to swim for a state championship,” said senior swimmer Jack Shay, who held a sign that read: “It’s a fancy flu.”

His teammate, senior Ethan Waskiel, said he couldn’t understand why their school was still in session if the threat of spreading the virus was so great.

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The Pomperaug swimmers, who learned about the cancellation through social media Tuesday morning, urged the CIAC to hold the meets without spectators to reduce any possible threat.

Pomperaug, the defending Class M swim champion and the favorite to repeat, hangs banners on the walls of its pool bearing the names of state champions.

“We’ve worked four years to get our name on a banner and now we won’t,” Waskiel said.

Bristol’s Jade Udoh is the senior center on the St. Paul girls basketball team, which was ranked second in Class L and had reached the quarterfinals before the tournament was scrapped.

Udoh’s mother, Bevin, texted her the news of the cancellation around noon Tuesday, and St. Paul administrators and coaches met with the teams later in the day.

“We were sobbing, even our freshmen,” said Udoh, an All-Naugatuck Valley League and All-State player. “We’re like sisters. It’s scary how close we are. And we got moved up to Class L and now we don’t even get to play.”

A Class S school in enrollment, St. Paul had been bumped up to Class L this season under a new tournament format.

One reason for the CIAC’s decision was that some schools were reportedly not going to participate. That didn’t sway Udoh.

“Have the teams that want to play compete,” she said. “If you want to play, you should be able to play.”

Udoh said her teammates and other St. Paul athletes wanted to attend, but were unable because “their parents were afraid of what was going to happen.” Udoh’s mother, on the other hand, felt it was important enough for her daughter to miss classes.

Despite the protest, CIAC officials indicated it’s unlikely the decision will be reversed. “Barring any new directive from the governor or the state health department, no,” said spokesman Joel Cookson.

The CIAC made the decision based on discussions with state health and education officials and after several schools said they had conflicting standards for competing in the tournament. Based on advice from their local health districts, some schools were willing to play with no fans, others with fewer than 100 fans and others with no limits at all.

Executive director Glenn Lungarini said the CIAC needed to provide a clear directive to all of its member schools.

By Steve Barlow, Waterbury Republican-American.