BY HAILEY CHAPMAN – MARCH 23, 2020
The 2020 NCAA winter championship and spring seasons were abruptly cut short across the nation for all athletes who were ready to leave their hearts on the line. COVID-19 has created a pandemic and is spreading like wildfire. In light of this, the NCAA made the decision to end the competitive school year early.
Perhaps the most crushing blow is for seniors; winter athletes had to say goodbye to their season prematurely, and spring athletes had barely begun their final round.
The Fort Hays State women’s basketball team experienced a whirlwind of emotions. After falling short of the conference championship, the team had to stand by and wait to see if it earned an at-large bid.
On the evening of March 8, the team gathered to watch the NCAA Division II Tournament Selection Show. A night of anticipation led to the revival of their season as they learned they were the No. 7 seed and would face No. 2 Minnesota-Duluth as they returned to the regional tourney.
The team prepared mentally and physically for this moment and began its journey to Warrensburg, Mo., hungry for a championship. It was the afternoon before the tournament that the team received the news: All athletic competitions had been canceled indefinitely.
“My initial reaction was kind of just shock,” senior guard Taylor Rolfs said. “I didn’t know what to think. Then I just felt mad about it all and didn’t think they could just cancel the tournament.”
A season was over, but not in a way that anyone could cope with because it was taken from them with no fault or error to anyone. Athletes are conditioned to cope with failure, to celebrate success, and to move on with life lessons that will benefit them forever. But this was a different kind of loss — unfinished business that will end with a million what-if’s.
Better said by Rolfs: “There were a lot of tears and disappointment because we didn’t get that closure feeling for our season.”
But there were no regrets. Rolfs shared that she was proud of her team and grateful to have experienced the last few years with a great group of teammates. The FHSU women’s basketball seniors made history during the last four years.
In 2019, the team accomplished both MIAA regular season and conference championships, as well as reaching the regional championship on their home court. The team has overcome great adversity throughout their time as Tigers.
As a parting message for Tiger Nation, Rolfs had this message: “I just want to say that I love you all and will support you always. Never take anything for granted because you might literally never know when your ‘lasts’ will take place. Enjoy the ride and work hard at what you do. Go Tigers!”
Recently, the NCAA granted all spring athletes who had seasons affected by COVID-19 the opportunity for an extra year of eligibility. For returning athletes, it was an easier decision; they come back and play their next season and make decisions for the future when the time comes.
However, for seniors, it was much more. Students who were already preparing for the real world are now having to decide if they take the extra year, not just an extra season. The athletes will go through an entire academic year, fall season, conditioning, weights, injury rehab and preseason, all before they get to step back on the field. It is a mental and physical toll that has never been endured before.
After a rough season a year ago in which the team finished 3-40, the FHSU baseball team was off to a strong start this spring as it began rebuilding the program under second-year head coach Jerod Goodale.
The season was cut short, however, as they played their final game of the year against nationally-ranked Central Missouri at Larks Park. The team finished the year 11-13, nearly quadrupling their wins from a full season last year.
Unlike Rolfs, senior pitcher Ryan Ruder was informed five minutes before the second game of their doubleheader that Thursday.
“It was such a shock to be told that you may be playing your last game ever, so there wasn’t much to feel at the time because nothing felt real,” Ruder said.
For Ruder, it has been about the people and experiences here at Fort Hays.
“I have no regrets about my time here. As far as a fifth year, I haven’t made my decision yet,” Ruder said. “I think the biggest issue I’ll face is being able to take care of my arm if I do come back. I’ve had to deal with some injuries in the last couple years that required a lot of rehabbing.”
Ruder also shared that academics would also play a part in his decision, one he never imagined having to make.
In similar fashion, Lily Sale, a senior infielder for FHSU softball, was told about her season-ending between the team’s doubleheader against Rogers State.
“My last softball game I knew was coming, but not like that, and not then,” Sale said. “I knew I had to walk away from the game at some point, just didn’t realize it was going to walk away from me.”
With a fifth year on the line, all senior athletes have a choice to make. At the end of the day, however, it is not just a game for them. The sports they choose to play consume their lives and mold their futures. Saying goodbye takes time, and the seniors did not get that this year.
“My best advice is to understand that playing a sport is never indefinite,” Sale said. “Softball doesn’t last forever, and sports, in general, are unpredictable — whether it’s an injury, etc. So make the most of your time doing the thing you love, give it your all always, and the parts of the game you get upset over, like early morning weights or practices are going to turn into the things you miss. Don’t take anything for granted, and love your teammates beside you the whole way because teammates are the only thing that will last when it’s all over.”