It seemed that everything was finally coming together for Southern Utah University’s men’s basketball team. After a rocky month of February, the team capped off the regular season with their first win in 20 years at the University of Montana.
The squad was finally returning to full health, and just in time for the Big Sky conference championship. Then the COVID-19 whirlwind grew larger and more sinister. Head coach Todd Simon was reviewing game film after SUU’s first round win against Idaho when he saw that Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert had been diagnosed with the novel coronavirus.
“At that very instant I remember telling my assistants, ‘This is over. There’s no way we’re playing,’” Simon told SUU News. “We got up for breakfast the next day and saw all the other conferences closing down. Really we were just waiting for the inevitable.”
On March 12, the Atlantic Coast Conference cancelled their tournament to slow the spread. Then the other power five conferences followed suit. The dominos fell and the Big Sky conference was forced to shut down a few hours later. Simon called a meeting for his players to tell them the news.
“We felt that after a season of trials and tribulations, it was all going to work out in the end,” Simon said. “Then there was all the suddenness of it coming to an end. We were feeling like, we just couldn’t catch a break.”
Players in the room were frustrated. Simon characterized a feeling disbelief settling over the room, but there was nothing they could do. Sixth senior Dwayne Morgan and players like him were denied their final chance to shine at the conference tournament.
Meanwhile, SUU gymnastics coach Scott Bauman’s phone was ringing constantly. His team was scheduled to travel for a meet against Brigham Young University later that afternoon, but everything felt like it was up in the air. He called BYU head coach Guard Young, and eventually the schools’ athletic departments agreed to have the meet without spectators.
A few hours later it was cancelled completely. BYU senior gymnasts did not celebrate Senior Night. Their careers were over and without even celebrating them properly.
“For gymnasts, it’s very different,” Bauman said. “These kids do this sport everyday for four or five hours a day for their entire lives, since they’re three, and then it’s just over… There’s a lot of closure that was missed for these athletes.”
The week before SUU told students that classes would move to remote instruction and that students who travelled for spring break would need to self-quarantine for the next 14 days.
Every member of the gymnastics team stayed in Cedar City. No one wanted to risk missing any time due to quarantine. Bauman had been strategically resting his best performers throughout the season so they’d be at their strongest for the conference tournament.
There was still 18 days until the conference tournament, but any hopes were soon dashed about returning to competition when the NCAA announced the cancellation of all winter championships.
“Our team was very very good, and I think that our team was going into the conference championship at the exact peak of our season,” Bauman said. “It was gut wrenching to tell them that it was over.”
With no warning and no time to compartmentalize, the sport that had made up so much of their identities was ripped away from SUU’s seniors. Their last performance against Boise State would be the punctuation on their careers whether they liked it or not.
The next day Bauman gathered the team one last time to watch highlights from the season and to celebrate their seniors. The team was lucky to have already hosted their own Senior Night, but Bauman knew the abrupt ending would be jarring. He tried to provide some closure, but knew there was a lot left on the table for his team.
While the NCAA was clear in announcing the end of the winter sports, things were still up in the air for spring competitors. SUU softball coach Don Williams and her team were permitted to continue practicing with the beginning of conference play only a week out.
Williams initially thought COVID-19 would only affect college basketball, but as the number of known cases in the U.S. grew the uncertainty built.
“Our players were very uneasy and coming in to ask questions about what was going on but no one really knew,” Williams said. “We were in limbo. We weren’t really getting answers from anybody. We were just watching the news like everyone else.”
After instructions to stop practicing came down from President Scott L. Wyatt, Williams knew her first season as the coach of the team would be cancelled. Before the NCAA had announced the cancellation, Williams told her team to return home.
The team’s seniors hoped the NCAA would grant them another year of eligibility, but for players who had already finished their Bachelor’s degrees like Hannah Williams, returning wasn’t an option.
Williams knew that granting eligibility would be more complicated than asking the seniors to simply return for another year. Some players had already walked onto the field for their final time.
Williams said, “They don’t get a senior banquet. They don’t get to be honored on their Senior Day. You always think that you’ll get to walk out on the field for your final home game in front of your parents and be able to have some closure to your softball career. To have it taken away so unexpectedly and so quickly, they were heartbroken. They’re still processing, and I don’t think they’ll get over it soon.”
Williams also held one last meeting to honor the team’s seniors. The sense of closure, while small and private, was special for them with so much uncertainty on the horizon.
SUU Track and Field coach Eric Houle faced similar complications at the end of his team’s indoor season. T-Bird half-miler Linnea Saltz held one of the five best 800 meter times in the country and had a chance to run at this summer’s Olympic trials, but her senior season was cut short.
Saltz had already landed an internship in Washington D.C. for the summer, and returning to SUU could put her back in her career after track. She hopes to run for a university back east when athletics start back up, but sending an athlete to the Olympic trials would have been a massive milestone for a small school like SUU.
Houle estimates that 70% of the team’s seniors will return, but many of his top competitors will have to move on.
While the decision to postpone athletics was heartbreaking, all of SUU’s coaches championed the school’s and the NCAA’s decisions to close things down when they did. Bauman expressed his gratitude for the swiftness with which they acted.
“Nobody’s ever really had to deal with something like this before, and I think the university handled it well given the information that they had. It stunk for our athletes because it wasn’t the way we wanted to finish, but they without question did the right thing. They handled it like they were supposed to keep our student-athletes safe, and I really appreciated that.”
No team obtained the closure they were hoping for. The coaches mull over the what-ifs of how their seasons might have played out, but ultimately none of that matters in the face of a global pandemic.
Next comes the process of moving forward and adjusting to the new normal that comes with social distancing and Zoom calls. It just would have been nice to have a little more time to say goodbye to the old one.
Story by: Connor Sanders
Photos courtesy of SUU Athletics.