Barber: Coronavirus has NCAA senior athletes stuck in limbo
Hannah Chew remembers Thursday, March 12, almost as fragments of a dream. I suppose a lot of us do. That was the day the NCAA canceled March Madness and Major League Baseball postponed opening day, the day after the NBA suspended its 2019-20 season. To a lot of red-blooded Americans, March 12 was the day the coronavirus emergency became real.
Chew, a Mario Carrillo High School graduate and senior catcher for the Saint Mary’s softball team, had played a home game against Oregon the day before. On March 12, the Gaels were preparing to leave for a two-day tournament at ?Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo. Chew packed her gear and headed to class that morning. The softball team was supposed to practice at 1 p.m. By noon, players found out the tournament had been canceled. By 3 p.m, the remainder of the season was deleted.
Chew had been nearing the finish line of a four-year journey, and suddenly the ground had opened up and swallowed her and her teammates.
“It hasn’t felt real,” Chew said by phone a couple days ago. “Like I feel like I’m in summer right now, because I’ve taken online classes over summer. And then I’ll see a video of me playing, or I’ll see like my bat sitting in a corner of the room, and I feel a very big heartache, like something was taken from me before I was ready to say goodbye. I feel a little lost.”
Katie Rohrer, who played softball at Rancho Cotate before taking her potent bat to San Francisco State, can relate. It took her conference (the CCAA, which includes Sonoma State) almost a week longer than Chew’s (the WCC) to make the official cancellation announcement. Rohrer recalls emptying out the softball equipment shed with teammates before everyone went their separate ways.
“It was a rushed goodbye,” Rohrer said. “I’m still, to this day, trying to text people and be like, ‘When am I gonna see you again? Or will I?’?”
The COVID-19 virus has delivered anxiety, disorientation and frustration (or much worse) to everyone in California and most other parts of the world. But there is a class of people who felt a unique disruption. They are college seniors who play a spring sport, especially if those sports don’t have viable professional leagues.
Two weeks ago, these young athletes were playing the games they love and looking forward to a last round of hurrahs. Now they are semi-quarantined at home, dealing with the sudden finality of a season and possibly a lifelong pastime.
Both Rohrer and Chew wanted to make it clear that they don’t particularly feel like victims in this situation. Chew admitted she went through “the whole why-me thing” when she first heard her season was over. “But as I kind of came home and settled in, you know, it’s not just me,” she said. “There are seniors across the country who are feeling this feeling, like a lost story, a chapter that hasn’t been closed.”
Yes, we all have our burdens right now. But I’ll say it for them: The spring-sport seniors are getting screwed.
Consider the rhythm of a typical season for graduating seniors. It starts with excitement over what they have every reason to expect will be their best year in the sport. Later, as it winds down, a bit of melancholy seeps in as the athlete realizes his/her final days of high-level competition are about to end. Athletes describe it as a period of reflection, appreciation and bittersweet emotion.
These kids had that “closure” taken from them.
Rohrer talked about the series of “lasts” she had experienced this school year - her final conditioning test, her final softball trip to Las Vegas (an annual preseason stop for SF State), etc. Each was an opportunity to pause and take in the magnitude of the moment.
“Every time something happened, it was my last of that,” she said. “I think that’s kind of how I was dealing with it. But I didn’t really get that last series. I didn’t know it was my last series. Or my last warmup, my last time wearing the uniform, things like that. It feels very incomplete.”
Chew recalled the hasty team meeting at which the Saint Mary’s athletic director, coach and softball staff confirmed the news and apologized to the students. Looking around the room, the catcher knew she wasn’t ready to say goodbye.
“Our team has become such a family to me,” Chew said. “I love spending every single day with them. From that moment, I realized that was it. I didn’t get to go put my cleats on. I didn’t get to watch my mom botch a first pitch in front of the whole crowd. I didn’t play catch with my dad on the field. I don’t get to talk to my pitchers during the game. It swept me. That feeling lasted for a couple days of heartbreak.”