OPRF student and basketball player Justin Mullins speaks to the crowd on Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021, during a protest outside Oak Park and River Forest High School over the school's new ban of extracurricular activities due to a COVID-19 case surge. | Alex Rogals

When Oak Park and River Forest High School announced on Dec. 3 that all extracurricular activities — including athletics — would be suspended due to an increase in COVID-19 cases, it caught many student-athletes off guard.

“When we found out about the decision, we were disappointed,” said OPRF boys basketball forward Justin Mullins on Dec. 4. “It happened to us last year, and we hate to see it happen again. There are guys trying to get college looks, and games help them. [Not playing] hurts.”

“It was tough. I was in near-tears,” added boys basketball forward Connor Hoehne.

OPRF students and parents organized a protest at the school Dec. 4 in an effort to get the suspension reversed. Among those who spoke was Reese Garland, a junior on the girls basketball team.

“This is very upsetting news, considering we found out while we were at the game,” she said, referring to OPRF boys basketball’s 66-52 victory over Fenwick at the Chicago Elite Classic. “This affects our mental health because we have had our past two seasons cut short. It’s upsetting to everyone. We need sports and clubs so that we can feel like ourselves again.”

As it turned out, the protest had an impact, because on Dec. 6, the school announced that athletics and other after-school activities would return the following day. And Hoehne was very happy about returning to the court.

“We’re super-excited to get back to [basketball], especially since we think we’re going to have a good year,” he said. “Last year without sports was one of the lowest points of my life because I’ve always played them. They’re a way to connect with people, and when we were faced with losing them again, I got really scared. But it’s super that’s not the case.”

Lori Gery, mother of OPRF girls basketball senior guard Lilah Gery, said her daughter was devastated when the initial decision was announced, calling it traumatic and a risk to the mental health of the student-athletes to have their seasons suspended abruptly.

But she’s pleased with the administration’s decision to reinstate winter sports.

“I am so relieved that the administration reversed its decision,” she told Wednesday Journal via text. “I absolutely support commonsense mitigation strategies like vaccinations, social distancing, masking and quarantining. They’re in place so that our kids can participate in their beloved extracurricular activities, which haven’t been the source of spread to date. It’s a win for their mental health.”

OPRF boys basketball coach Phil Gary is also pleased to be able to resume the Huskies’ season.

“It’s a big relief,” he said. “It was discouraging to hear the news on Friday, but to hear that we’re back helps kids mentally.”

OPRF boys basketball’s next game is Dec. 17 at Proviso West, while girls basketball’s next game is Dec. 13 at Hinsdale Central.

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