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Barber: Coronavirus has NCAA senior athletes stuck in limbo

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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.”

Both athletes had been fired up about their teams’ prospects, too. San Francisco State was a middling 9-11 in conference play when the end came. But as Rohrer noted, the Gators’ early schedule had included what were probably the toughest four teams in the CCAA; SF State had gone .500 against those opponents. She liked her chances of a postseason berth.

On top of that, the slugging first baseman was having a great individual season. She led the team with four home runs, was tied for second with 14 RBIs and was fourth with a .310 batting average.

“I was feeling it,” Rohrer said. “I had nothing to lose, in a sense. I was leaving it all out on the field and doing the best I could. It’s tough.”

Saint Mary’s, meanwhile, was mired at 7-18-1. But Chew insists that record is misleading. The Gaels hadn’t started conference play yet. Their nonconference schedule had included games against much bigger programs. On March 8, Saint Mary’s lost 3-2 to Washington, which was ranked No. 2 in the nation at the time (and Chew would like to point out that a controversial call had worked against her team in that one).

“What hurts is I’ve got to see so many of my teammates grow and develop and find their own on the field. And I don’t get to see that finish out,” she said.

Now both young women, and thousands like them, are floating in a state of limbo. On March 13, the NCAA Division I Council’s eight-member leadership group supported the notion of adding a year of eligibility for all impacted athletes. The entire council is set to vote on “eligibility relief” Monday. If approved, the measure would then go to the Division I Board of Directors for review.

There is tremendous popular support for showing kindness to these students. But the NCAA vote is not a slam dunk. After a recent analysis, USA Today estimated that giving an additional season just to spring-sports seniors could cost public schools in the Power Five conferences anywhere from $500,000 to $900,000. This at a time when the NCAA is reeling financially from the cancellation of March Madness and schools are expecting a decline in donations as the economy teeters.

Anyway, it isn’t simply a matter of what’s allowed. Most of these seniors were forming their college exit strategies and preparing for life in the world beyond campus.

“I’ve competed all four years — or 3½. Is it time for me to move on?” wondered Chew, who is on course to graduate in May with a degree in kinesiology and sports management, with a minor in business. “Being a catcher, my body takes a beating. Do I take into consideration my health, and do another year physically? Financial, obviously? Saint Mary’s is a very expensive institution.”

Chew had been leaning against grad school, at least right away. Now she is considering a Master’s program at Saint Mary’s, partly for a chance to play softball again.

“I can’t do anything about it until I get answers,” she said. “Hypothetically, if the stars aligned, I’d like to go back and play another year. But the stars don’t always align in life.”

Rohrer is nearly finished with her criminal justice degree. She had only to knock out a couple of filler courses — a yoga class and an independent study program that involved squad-car ride-alongs. She planned to graduate in May and immediately enter the police academy. She had it all set up. Now it’s on hold.

“My take on it is that my job will always be there. The workforce will always be there,” Rohrer said. “Of course I would take that next year and play. But at the same time, my parents are sitting over here telling me financially it’s not the right decision, especially with the virus taking a toll on the economy and things like that. It’s hard, because now I have to not only convince myself, I have to convince my family that it’s the right decision.”

For now, these two former high school rivals and travel-ball teammates (“We competed for the lefty catcher position,” said Rohrer, who used to play behind the plate) are back in their old rooms at their parents’ houses.

Rohrer has been playing board games with her mother and father, taking the dog for walks, working out on an exercise machine and “doing the dirty work” in the garden with her mom. It has been an especially hard transition for Chew, who prefers to hyper-schedule herself.

“I was up at 7 (a.m.) and in bed by midnight every day,” she said. “Now I get up, and I go to class online, and I sit and do homework. That takes up like four hours of my day, and then I have another 10 to go. I think I’ve done three or four giant 500-piece puzzles. I started riding a bike to get some cardio in and go out and get some fresh air. Looking at jobs, see if that’s an option.”

As it turns out, part of what is getting these two through the long hours is long-distance contact with their teammates. Their 2020 quests cut short, the athletes are finding that no one understands what they’re feeling more than the women who shared their softball diamonds the past four years.

“I talk to those girls every single day, all day,” Chew said. “It doesn’t feel final yet. But it feels like there’s a gap between my former life and now. You never know, I might be back next year. But even so, it’s never gonna be the same team.”

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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