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Benefield: Excitement turns to disappointment for Santa Rosa Junior College men's basketball squad

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The Santa Rosa Junior College men’s basketball team had their walk-through Thursday morning and then headed out to lunch with the directive to be back in 45 minutes to board the bus for West Hills College in Lemoore and the program’s third straight trip to the Elite 8 in the state playoffs.

Then came a text from coach Craig McMillan, essentially saying “Take your time,” because a meeting was being held among California Community College Athletic Association officials to decide whether the tournament would even be held amid concerns over the spread of coronavirus. Then came the next text: It’s off. The season is over.

“It’s an empty feeling,” McMillan said after he broke the news to his team. “It’s a very empty way to end the season.”

The Bear Cubs said they sensed that CCCAA officials might shutter the three-day tournament. Officials had already made the call to play the games in an empty gym as a way to mitigate health risks.

But that was before the NBA, NHL and MLS suspended all games and Major League Baseball shut down the exhibition season, saying opening day will be delayed by at least two weeks.

The NCAA, which had moved, like the CCCAA, to play games in empty arenas, canceled its crown jewel basketball tournament altogether. No “One Shining Moment,” not this year, anyway.

“I had a feeling when they canceled the NBA season it might go that way,” McMillan said. “I don’t know of any sport that is still going. At this point, everything is canceled.”

And it all may be good and right and the best call in the face of the growing global pandemic, but no doubt it’s hard. And it’s not selfish to feel a little ripped off to have the final piece of the season, and in some cases careers, shut down.

Damian Wallace, a redshirt sophomore who prepped at Cardinal Newman, is done. The first team All-Big 8 pick will not suit up as a Bear Cub again.

“I’m at a loss for words, to be honest,” he said.

The guard had already wrapped his head around playing the tournament in front of empty bleachers. But as late as Wednesday afternoon, he seemed upbeat about the possibility that the Bear Cubs, seeded No. 3 in the north and scheduled to take on the mighty Huskies of East LA College, the No. 2 seed in the south, could turn the situation to their advantage.

“We are going to have to just use it to our advantage, bring our own energy,” he said. “We’ve had a good bench all year, so we are going to hope that they provide the energy that we need.”

They didn’t get that chance and every bit of that positive energy was sapped when I talked to him Thursday afternoon.

“There’s no completion to it,” Wallace said. “It’s difficult. It’s very difficult.”

I could hear the loss in Atmar Mundu’s voice, too.

Despite the wave of cancellations and postponements, Mundu said he didn’t see it coming — or perhaps he willed the possibility to the farthest reaches of his mind.

“It just sucks,” he said. “Playing without fans is one thing, but not to play? That’s a whole (other) story.”

Mundu, the Big 8 Player of the Year, like Wallace, wants to play on next year but doesn’t yet know where. There were going to be scouts there this weekend. That opportunity is now lost, too.

“A lot of coaches come out to watch players and teams,” he said.

McMillan scheduled a meeting with the team when they come back from spring break. If they come back, that is.

Santa Rosa Junior College officials said Thursday they will use spring break as a time to plan for the possibility of future closures when classes are scheduled to resume March 23.

“The whole team is in shock,” Mundu said.

Just 24 hours separated the Bear Cubs getting a shot to play out their future and having that call made for them. Tipoff was scheduled for 1 p.m. Friday. That is how fast this thing has moved.

A loss Friday would have ended the season, too, but that would have brought a different kind of pain from what they were dealing with Thursday. At least they would have suited up and made a go of it on the court. For a competitor, that’s all you can ask for — a shot.

“That’s one of the best feelings,” Wallace said of a locker room after a game. Win or lose, the emotions in those places, with those people, are real. “The locker room after the final game is special.”

The Bear Cubs now trade the locker room for a meeting room. They will disband for spring break and then regroup to talk about final steps for this group.

It was a group that won a Big 8 title, that went 23-7 and was riding a five-game win streak.

In addition to player-of-the-year honors for Mundu and first-team accolades for Wallace, freshman Edward Turner was a first-team pick and sophomore Gianni Brown was honorable mention.

McMillan was fresh off the walk-through as he was still trying to sort out his feelings that his team wouldn’t end the season with either a win or loss, but a decision made on a conference call.

“It’s a hard way to end the season,” he said. “I think we would have played well.”

Mundu had been looking forward to the challenge: “It was a winnable game.”

But circumstances forced him to recalibrate his emotions Thursday.

“It was fun while it lasted, that’s for sure,” he said.

He, and others, just wished it could have lasted a little while longer.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud, “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

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