VOORHEES, N.J. — Athlete eligibility and scholarship availability are two of the biggest questions college coaches are now tasked with moving forward as the COVID-19 pandemic spreads across the United States.
On March 12, the National Collegiate Athletic Association announced the cancellation of the remainder of winter and spring sports championships. Conferences across the country followed suit as the possibility of a shutdown swiftly became reality.
That meant coaches, particularly those in spring sports, had to abruptly tell their teams and players that their season was over.
“That was probably one of the hardest things that I had to do, is to tell my team that we weren’t going to be able to finish,” Towson University women’s basketball coach Diane Richardson told Capital News Service.
The Tigers had just finished up a walk-through before their first game of the Colonial Athletic Association Women’s Basketball Tournament — where they were the defending champions — when she had to break the news to her players that the tournament was going to be cancelled.
Many tears were shed in the locker room immediately following the news that ended their season.
Some coaches, Like Richardson, had the ability to meet with their teams.
Navy men’s lacrosse head coach Joe Amplo was with the team after practice on the Thursday when the Patriot League and, subsequently, the NCAA, made their decisions.
The team was preparing for a Saturday game against Johns Hopkins University, but in a split-second, everything changed. Amplo told the team to sit tight.
“Normally, they would have left the facility,” Amplo said. “I said, ‘Something’s happening.’ I said, ‘I wanna be together if we find out some bad news,’ so we just kind of hung out in the locker room for an hour or so until it was official.”
Others, like Loyola University Maryland track and field coach Amy Horst, were more than halfway across the country in Albuquerque, New Mexico, for the NCAA Division I Indoor Track and Field Championships.
Horst woke up to texts the morning of March 12 that the Patriot League was cancelling the remainder of its season. Then, inside the Albuquerque Convention Center later in the day, she became a spectator to colleges and universities finding out in the same space in real time that the NCAA Championships were cancelled.
“It was like ‘I don’t even understand. This can’t happen,’” Horst said. “‘This is not something that I’ve ever in my entire life as a coach thought would be something that could happen.’ To be in that space, it was very surreal.”
For those who had the ability to meet with their teams, like Richardson and Amplo, telling their players the reality of the situation was no easy task. All of the hard work that the players had put in for an entire offseason or an entire regular season was instantaneously lost.
“It was a shocker,” Coppin State University baseball head coach Sherman Reed said. “A couple of guys were looking up and waiting for the next comeback to be, ‘Coach is just playing around.’”
Reed’s team was getting ready for a three-game set with Villanova. When he told Wildcats head coach Kevin Mulvey, his reaction mirrored that of the Coppin State players. The Big East would take the same route later that day.
Spring sports coaches are now faced with even tougher decisions, as the NCAA ruled in favor of an extra year of eligibility for spring sports athletes. Fewer scholarships could become available as players weigh their eligibility possibilities.
“I was expecting that,” Frostburg State University baseball head coach Anthony Williams said. “What it ultimately did lead to (was) more questions: How is scholarship money going to be handled, and all of those sorts of things.”
For players coming back, especially underclassmen, it’s almost like having a taste of playing before playing a full season. But for the seniors, some might have played their final collegiate games.
Seniors in military programs are deployed after four years, so unfortunately for them, their last games were already played.
“For some guys, they were graduating on time and they have jobs lined up,” Williams said. “They couldn’t essentially put their life on hold to come back for another year and incur the costs that it takes to go to school for another year. … But I know that at the end of the day, they have a lot of great memories and we were able to play 13 games together this spring.”
The question now is about the future and what’s next.
In the short term, that means keeping up with practice, which has been much tougher than expected for some.
“All the high school fields or public parks or anywhere that has a lacrosse goal for most of my players to access has been shut down,” Frostburg women’s lacrosse coach Madelyn Manzoni said. “If they don’t have that equipment at their house, we just had to modify things, a lot of it.”
However, the main focus, the long-term focus, is preparation for next season, and even with an unknown end date to the pandemic, the plan is to prepare as if next season is going to happen.
“It’s tough,” McDaniel College men’s lacrosse coach Keith Euker said. “…The best thing that we can do now is continue to build relationships with our current players and also prospective recruits. … As of now, we’re just gonna move forward like we’re gonna be back normally.”