MARSHALL — The sun slowly peeks from behind the clouds, illuminating the darkened dugouts at Mustang Field, the home of the Southwest Minnesota State University softball team. Once full of chants of encouragement and talks between coaches and players, there is an eerie emptiness that has quickly replaced that atmosphere.
Just down the road, it was more of the same at the baseball field and track and field complex. Tarps covering home plate. Hurdles and starting blocks neatly stacked off to the side. Nobody in sight.
Only in the first couple of weeks of their schedules, Mustang spring sports teams saw their seasons come to a screeching — and devastating — halt as the COVID-19 pandemic caused the cancellation of the remainder of their schedules. What started as a hope of just temporarily pressing pause on the season was fast-forwarded through its entirety, missing highlights of every future celebration, game-changing play or hopes of a postseason berth along the way.
One of the most terrifying thoughts the coronavirus is currently presenting is the fact that it’s something nobody has dealt with before and conversations have to be updated with each passing minute. SMSU Director of Athletics Chris Hmielewski said each day brings new challenges and they are in constant communication with each other in order to provide the latest and most factual information that they can.
“As of right now, every day we are going through changes that are out of our control, so communication needs to be at a high level. By the time we are able to communicate with those we need to, things have changed and information may not be as factual as it was the day before. To experience the cancellation of the spring season and see our hard-working teams and student-athletes not being able to complete their spring season, it’s a numb feeling and nothing can prepare them for a global health crisis,” Hmielewski said. “It’s a lot of uncharted water to manage so we just need to support our student-athletes and provide them with the facts and put a plan in place of what they can do to complete the spring semester. Coaches are communicating with our student-athletes and supporting their mental and physical health all in preparation to finish the academic year. Physically, we are encouraging them to be active and work out; we’re trying to provide them the resources and training routines to work out at home or a gym so they can maintain their physical and mental well-being.”
“My heart goes out to all of our student-athletes and coaches as I know it has been extremely difficult to see the hard work that they invested in their sport and then having an unforeseen force like COVID-19 impact our spring season the way it did,” Hmielewski said. “My thoughts go out to student-athletes and coaches and hopefully, together we can minimize the spread of this virus and get everybody back to a normal routine and lifestyle.”
The day sports went dark
The sudden unraveling of the sports world began when the NBA announced its suspension of its season on March 11. The next day was one of the biggest days in sports history, as nearly every level followed a similar pattern. Three Mustang teams were with their respective groups when news began to break about seasons ending. The SMSU baseball team was returning to Minnesota from its six-day, six-game spring trip to Tucson, Ariz. Coach Paul Blanchard said they didn’t realize the severity of the situation at first, but once they saw everything around them get shut down, they knew it was only a matter of time.
“We started hearing rumblings halfway through our spring trip. A couple of weeks ago, we didn’t know how big the issue was at the time but when we got back, it hit us a couple of days later that our season was going to come to an end,” Blanchard said. “It happened so fast; we were getting off the plane on Thursday morning and within a week, the season is shut down. It’s quite a bit for anybody to take in and you realize how small the world is as a college coach or player. It’s a sad deal either way.”
Golf coach Ross Webskowski added they were fortunate to be with their team at the time, but it still felt hard to believe.
“The news flew quickly, but we had the advantage of being on our spring trip so we were all together and could communicate and guide our team. At first we didn’t think it was a huge deal but then it escalated quickly,” Webskowski said. “We had a great spring trip and although it was nice to see it end on a good note, it’s still surreal the further this goes on. We just need to take things day-by-day and prepare ourselves academically to finish the semester.”
Other sports, like track and field and tennis, didn’t have the fortunes of being together in the same place. Junior thrower Rebecca Manteuffel and assistant coach Lizzie Virgl were in Birmingham, Ala. preparing for the NCAA Indoor Championships when they found out the event and the rest of the season was canceled. Meanwhile, the softball team was 1,600 miles away, wrapping up their 10-game trip to Florida.
Coach Bailey Bouman said while her players were initially sad, they knew this was something much bigger.
“We were there to support the girls,” Bouman said. “They’re a very close team and they were pretty sad, but understood the bigger picture and have done a really good job of hanging on to that.”
Getting tech savvy
The next step was increasing restrictions and limitations in response to the virus. Hmielewski said they’re taking every directive and suggestion given to them as a University to help minimize its spread.
“We took direction from the CDC, the Minnesota State system and the NCAA and NSIC and have promoted social distancing, have tried to minimize gatherings and have gone to a telework format for our coaches and staff members,” Hmielewski said. “Whatever guidance and directives that are provided to us to minimize the threat, that’s what we’re doing.”
With everyone isolated in their homes and practicing social distancing, teams aren’t allowed to hold in-person meetings. Fortunately, there are several ways for coaches to stay connected with their student-athletes. One of those is the Zoom app, which helps teams hold multiple video chats at once.
Bouman said their team have relied on these apps to maintain a strong team bond with one another.
“Technology is a crazy thing. We had a Zoom call (last Monday) so that everybody could see each other and the girls are big with their apps like doing dances on Tik Tok, which is fun to see,” Bouman said. “We’re just trying to stay engaged with trivia talks and playing charades; they’re a goofy bunch that likes to smile and have fun and laugh, so they’re trying to keep their spirits light and they’ve done a good job of that.”
Track and field coach Kirk Nauman said it’s been helpful since the majority of their athletes are not in the same town, or even the same state.
“We’ve got a number of kids who are already packed unless they’re in town, so they’re all over the place and not just in the Upper Midwest so it’s a different life situation for everyone,” Nauman said. “It’s just our reality right now.”
Making the call
The cancellation of spring sports meant the end of not only the season for teams, but for a vast majority of student-athletes, the end of their playing careers. Fortunately, the NCAA came to the conclusion to provide eligibility relief to all student-athletes who play a spring sport.
Hmielewski said the rules for Division II are similar to that of Division I and they are getting into talks with their student-athletes over the course of the next couple of weeks.
“It is very similar for Division II as it is for Division I in terms of passing emergency legislation to address the eligibility of our spring sport student-athletes,” Hmielewski said. “There are legislative proposals for our student-athletes that have been approved allowing our student-athletes to get back their spring season, and we’re just starting conversations with our student-athletes on how this will impact their academic and athletic future.”
While student-athletes have the option to continue their playing careers, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll automatically suit back up for one more year, especially in the case of seniors.
For some, it doesn’t fit with their academic plans or it’s too expensive to play, or they are already lining up post-graduation jobs.
Blanchard said some of the 11 seniors they had this spring were still undecided, regardless of how many years they had played.
“Some guys have eligibility but it doesn’t fit with their majors. I think fewer are going to do it, but some of them haven’t decided yet,” Blanchard said. “Some were fourth or fifth-year players and some were even in their sixth year that could play a seventh because they medically redshirted.”
The softball team had five seniors. Bouman said right now, the best thing they can do as coaches is be supportive of their players’ decision whatever it may be.
“The big thing for our seniors is just seeing how they’re doing as human beings. Some will see how things will fit academically because they’re applying for grad schools and some just physically don’t know if they can play another year so it’s really up in the air,” Bouman said. “We’re just trying to be supportive because softball is such a small portion of everything else in the world.”
SMSU sports such as track and field, tennis and golf will have a different dynamic, with those programs having little to no seniors. What that, however, comes a ripple effect of adjustments such as roster sizes and number of scholarships as well as recruitment that will play an impact in the next few years.
Webskowski said they don’t have any seniors but believes it will benefit their program in the near future.
“We actually don’t have any seniors so it doesn’t really change our situation. With the NCAA granting them an extra year, members of our current team get an extra year and it’s up to them whether they want to use it when they’re done,” Webskowski said. “How other teams will have to handle their rosters will be an interesting thing to see, but this allows us more flexibility; it might change recruiting a little bit on how many will sign in the future but it will benefit us by not having any seniors right now.”
While their seasons are cut short, the Mustangs were able to post some solid starts to their spring campaigns. SMSU baseball went 6-5, including winning its final two games with a combined 28 runs. Blanchard said the anticipation and excitement was evident from their group from the start and they’ll see where they stand with their roster once fall approaches.
“We had a good team going in, so there was a lot of anticipation of making the conference tournament. We had a chance that was taken away and now the dynamics of the roster will change, so we’ll see where we’re at in the fall,” Blanchard said. “It’s a bit of a disappointment because we were off to as good of a start that we’ve had in five years and didn’t get to see where it went. But we’ll continue to work hard and we’ll be OK.”
Mustang softball also posted an above-.500 record, bouncing back from a tough 1-5 start by winning eight of their final 10 games. Bouman said they were able to see the beginnings of a special season after the offseason work they put in and is excited to see where it will take them next year.
“They really worked hard all year and were holding each other accountable and we saw a glimpse of our potential as we went from working in the PE Gym to coming together as a team in Florida,” Bouman said. “It’s exciting to see how it will transition into next year, how we fight and see what can happen.”
SMSU golf was able to earn Top 5 finishes in both of its spring invites this season, including a third-place finish at the SMSU Spring Challenge on March 12. Webskowski said despite having a young team, they were able to get accustomed to the college game quickly and they’ll have a good group of returning players next fall.
“We were a really young team in the fall and had some kids figuring things out at the college level, but they’re a talented group and they trust the process. They took things to heart from October-March and improved on a daily basis and we were able to see some very good results,” Webskowski said. “We’ll have a great young core of golfers coming back as well as some incoming players that will push for playing time and that’s something we are looking forward to.”
SMSU track and field was wrapping up its indoor season and was scheduled to compete in its first outdoor meet of the season this past Saturday. Nauman said they were able to show a lot of progress in his first year at the helm for the Mustangs and they’re continuing to build and improve their numbers going into the offseason.
“With it being my first year, there was a lot of cultural change in a positive way. Cross country was a learning piece for me since I got here but during our indoor season, we had school records in 10 events,” Nauman said. “We’re still recruiting, but right now we’re in a dead period until at least April 15. We have others who are ready to sign who can’t do that right now and then there are a lot of high school seniors whose seasons are lost. It’s a lot of moving parts.”
Finally, the SMSU tennis team wrapped up its spring season with a 1-7 record, picking up its lone win on Feb. 23 against the University of Minnesota Crookston.
Moving forward, Hmielewski said the best thing they can do is continue to support their student-athletes and provide them with as many resources as possible.
“Right now, all athletics related activities have been canceled through the end of the spring semester, so we just need to keep a healthy mind and healthy body,” Hmielewski said. “We are supporting our student-athletes with the completion of the academic year, encouraging them to train on their own, and helping them to develop a daily routine that promotes academic and athletic success.”