OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Creighton right-hander Ben Dotzler was supposed to be in the bullpen at TD Ameritrade Park this weekend, readying himself to pitch against Northern Colorado.
Molly Little, who plays lacrosse for Denver, expected to be on the road for a much anticipated match against Michigan, the team the Pioneers beat to reach the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament last year.
Avrey Steiner thought she would be with her softball teammates for Illinois’ first home games of the season against Bowling Green and Green Bay.
Everything changed for thousands of college athletes when the NCAA announced Thursday it was canceling all spring sports championships, along with remaining winter championships, because of the coronavirus pandemic. Conferences followed, saying they were temporarily or permanently shutting down their regular seasons.
Suddenly, athletes who put in long hours juggling commitments to their sports and academics had lots of free time.
And they’re miserable.
“We didn’t work a whole year,” Dotzler said, “to play 15 games.”
Little said she woke up at 6:30 every morning to go to the training room to rehab an injury and stretch before lifting weights and running — all before going to a 2 1/2-hour practice and then her classes.
“There’s nothing that can prepare you for the feeling of your season being done, and it’s not because you lost in NCAAs,” Little said. “I spent many hours crying with teammates. You work your whole life to get to this point, to play on this big stage, and to have it taken from you is devastating.”
Steiner said she was doing fine emotionally until she started cleaning out her locker Friday.
“That really got me,” she said. “A lot of people are going to say, ’Oh, yeah, this is like a week off or getting a couple days off. I guarantee you it’s going to hit me and other people in the coming weeks.”
Some good news arrived on Friday when the NCAA informed schools that spring athletes would be given another year of eligibility to make up for their lost season. Details must be worked out.
States Fort, a senior on the Coastal Carolina men’s golf team, hopes to return for another year even though he’ll graduate in May.
“I would try to make it work with grad courses,” he said. “I would do everything in my power as long as the finances are there. I would love to come back and play with these guys.”
Not all seniors will be able to take advantage of being granted an extra year. Some already have jobs lined up. Others have been accepted into graduate programs at other schools. There are athletes who currently are on partial scholarships, and they may not be able to afford paying the difference for another year.
Though the eligibility extension offers some consolation, it will be impossible for athletes to duplicate the experiences of playing with their 2020 teams.
The Richmond women’s lacrosse team, for example, was off to a program-best 7-0 start and ranked in the top 20 nationally for the first time since 2008.
“We just accelerated into the season and started off so hot,” senior goaltender Megan Gianforte said. “Personally, I thought I was peaking this year. I felt I was in the best condition for this season. That’s why I was so excited for it. We brought in so much talent, which helps me defensively.
“I’m leaving Richmond now with such unfinished business, knowing all the potential we could have had. I just know how much more we have to give.”
Now the spring athletes are left to wonder what they’ll do with themselves.
“It is just heartbreaking to see these kids face this unfortunate situation,” longtime University of San Francisco baseball coach Nino Giarratano said. “They are too young.”
Creighton sophomore Tommy Steier said he and Dotzler, his roommate, have been spending a lot of time hanging out with teammates, rehashing old stories and plotting their immediate futures.
Creighton isn’t allowing athletes to use the school’s training facilities during the shutdown. Baseball players will work out on their own and prepare to join summer teams in a few months — if the summer leagues operate.
Fort, the Coastal Carolina golfer, said a temporary sports stoppage would have been more appropriate, followed by a reassessment of the situation. He wishes the NCAA would have waited before canceling championships scheduled for months from now.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover from the virus.
“Obviously I’m biased because I play a small outdoor sport where spectators aren’t much of an issue,” Fort said. “It was kind of quick and a little rash and short-sighted on the NCAA’s part, especially to blanket cancel all sports.
“I can understand basketball. That’s a spectator sport where you have a ton of people constantly rubbing shoulders. I can almost understand baseball. But sports like (men’s) volleyball, softball, golf and lacrosse don’t have as much of a pronounced fan base.”
Creighton’s baseball team was busing back to Omaha from Minnesota on Thursday when the players’ Twitter feeds started showing conference basketball tournaments being canceled.
An hour after the players got home they received a text telling them to return to campus for a meeting. Steier and Dotzler said everyone sensed what was coming.
As coach Ed Servais broke the news, seniors, who wouldn’t know for another 24 hours they would be allowed to come back next year, broke into tears.
“It was hard to see all of them knowing they were losing what they love to do,” Steier said.
Gianforte, the Richmond lacrosse goalie, said she and her teammates had a feeling as early as Wednesday afternoon their season might be in jeopardy. That’s when the Ivy League announced it was closing down spring sports.
“I think the other conferences were feeling some peer pressure,” she said.
Then the NBA announced Wednesday night it was suspending its season.
“That,” Gianforte said, “is when we knew we were goners.”