FHSU athletes and coaches come to terms with seasons ending prematurely due to COVID-19

BY MAKENNA ALLEN
PHOTOS BY ALLIE SCHWEIZER, DALSY TURNER, FHSU ATHLETICS

The COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the nation has left few areas of life untouched.  For students at Fort Hays State University, the changes happened all too quickly. On March 12, the University decided to transition classes to an online format for the remainder of the semester, effective March 30.  The decision that day rocked the world of those attending on-campus classes. However, student-athletes had even more to swallow.  

That same day, the NCAA President, Mark Emmert, and the Board of Governors announced that all Winter and Spring Championship events would be canceled.  Simultaneously, the MIAA and member institutions announced the suspension of all MIAA intercollegiate sports activities. This meant that, effective at 11 p.m. that very evening, all collegiate sports competitions and practices would come to a halt.  

For teams participating in postseason play, this meant a crushing end to playoff and national championship dreams.

Indeed, the women’s basketball team saw an end to its third straight NCAA Tournament appearance before it even began.  They were set to play Minnesota Duluth in the Central Region Quarterfinals the very next day.  

Though the team completed the truncated season with a record of 23-7, Tiger seniors including Kacey Kennett, Belle Barbieri, Taylor Rolfs, Kyleigh Kasper, and Lanie Page would never again take the court in a Tiger uniform.  

The women’s’ basketball team players aren’t the only Tigers dealing with national championship dreams crushed.  In fact, Tiger Wrestling was set to send five individuals to the NCAA Championship in Sioux Falls, S.D. The list included seniors Brandon Ball and Jordan Davis.  Also among the competitors were junior Marty Verhaeghe, sophomore Aryus Jones, and redshirt-freshman Mason Turner.  

Ball would have made his fourth appearance in the championships while attempting to become a three-time All-American.  Davis, meanwhile, planned to make his first appearance with hopes of becoming an AA.  

“It was a crushing blow to get the news,” Wrestling head coach, Chas Thompson, said.  “These guys had been training for seven months for this moment, and were 15 to 16 hours away from weighing in.”

Even despite this disappointment, Thompson and his wrestlers soon began to realize what was at stake and the reasoning behind the NCAA and MIAA decisions.

“Now after processing it and seeing how fast this is spreading, you have to understand that this pandemic is bigger than you, your team, and this sport,” Thompson said.  “We have to make sure this doesn’t turn into a mass epidemic where it’s spreading like wildfire.”

Another team of Tigers forced to come to this same conclusion were members of the Indoor Track and Field team that were already at the National Championship in Birmingham, Alabama.  

Sophomore pole vaulter, Ryan Stanley, and junior high jumper, Summer Kragel, were prepared to compete in the NCAA Championships for their sport when the cancellations became official.  

“With cross country and track and field, most student-athletes already participated in one or two seasons (cross country and indoor track and field),” Cross Country/Track and Field head coach, Jason McCullough, said.  “A few of our student-athletes who compete only outdoors, such as javelin and discus throwers, were unable to participate during the 2019 to 2020 season at all. Almost every student-athlete will also now have differing eligibilities for cross country, indoor, and outdoor track and field.”  

Equally as confusing was the ending to the season for teams still in their regular season play. 

“There are so many unanswered questions. I am losing three seniors so it has been tough on them and me not seeing them able to finish their careers,” Women’s’ Tennis head coach, Brian Flax, said.  “I’ve coached for 24 years and this is the craziest thing I have experienced.”

In this rapidly changing and unprecedented situation, many members of the community, athletes or not, find themselves with unanswered questions.  When it comes to the MIAA and NCAA’s decisions, the timeline before athletic events resume is indefinite. The NCAA did offer some consolation, however, with its approval of an additional year of eligibility for seniors participating in spring sports. 

Despite the complications for Tiger Athletics, coaches like McCullough stress the fact that all teams are in the same place. 

“It is important to realize that this unfortunate situation is not just affecting FHSU, but rather the entire country when it comes to NCAA athletic ramifications,” McCullough said.

For now, student-athletes and FHSU Athletics fans can be certain of one thing: the coming weeks will bring a respite from any collegiate athletic activities.  Even though this fact may be tough to handle, FHSU Athletic Director, Curtis Hammeke, emphasizes the importance of protecting the community.  

“The outlook for our teams moving forward is to take it one day at a time until this all blows over,” Hammeke said.  “Right now the focus must remain on staying healthy and taking care of our classes. When things return to normal, we can resume the recruiting process and the physical preparations for 2020 to 2021.”

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