BY MAKENNA ALLEN
Their season finale was scheduled to begin March 13, and the call came through at 3:18 p.m., March 12.
Before the NCAA Division II Wrestling Championship in Sioux Falls, S.D., could even begin, it was all over.
The decision by NCAA President Mark Emmert and the Board of Governors to cancel all NCAA winter and spring championships marked an abrupt conclusion to the seasons of many Tiger athletes.
For others, it meant the end of their collegiate careers.
While the NCAA’s decision to cancel national championships for the winter season left few of Tiger Athletics’ sports unaffected, not many teams experienced the powerful blow that FHSU wrestling took just hours before the road to Sioux Falls reached its final stage.
In fact, the five national qualifiers from the team already had arrived at Augustana University. There, seniors Brandon Ball and Jordan Davis prepared alongside junior Marty Verhaeghe, sophomore Aryus Jones and redshirt-freshman Mason Turner for the meet that was the ultimate destination of the season.
For Ball, this was not a new experience. He had qualified for the championships the past three years. However, this year, he was aiming for the title of national champion.
Additionally, he was looking to become a three-time All-American.
Davis was making his first appearance at the national tourney along with Verhaeghe, Jones and Turner. The news was no less sudden for the wrestlers.
“It was a crushing blow to get the news,” wrestling head coach Chas Thompson said in relating the story.
According to Thompson, the team had just finished at the coaches’ meeting regarding the issue. After a late lunch, he returned to the arena to find a distressing sight.
“I quickly finished my meal and walked right back over to the arena to see if the mats, tables and clocks were still down,” Thompson said. “Sure enough, on one end you have workers ripping up mat tape and rolling up sections. On another end of the arena, you have a few teams still practicing and kind of looking dumbfounded as to if this nightmare was coming true.”
For athletes such as Ball, this was an unforeseen nightmare.
“I knew that it (COVID-19) would make its impact throughout the U.S., but I didn’t think it would affect me much,” Ball said. “What surprised me the most was how fast everything changed all in the matter of 24 hours.”
Indeed, the tide changed quickly for Ball and his fellow wrestlers. In the span of one day, the team learned that all Division I sports had canceled championships. Soon after, they heard that no spectators would be allowed at their event in South Dakota. The announcement the following morning limited each athlete to six tickets for family members to watch the meet.
Mere hours later, it was all over for the Division II national championship wrestlers in Sioux Falls.
“Of course our five national qualifiers were crushed, and we just had to try to process it,” Thompson said. “These guys had been training for seven months for this moment and were 15 to 16 hours away from weighing in.”
For Ball, the moment had taken away more than seven months of training. Rather, his entire wrestling career had ended in an unanticipated moment.
“I have spent five years training in college for this one day to have a shot at being able to achieve my goal of being a national champion for it just to be taken away from me,” Ball said.
Similar to Ball, Thompson expressed his initial frustration with the NCAA’s decision.
“I’ll be the first to admit that I was angry and felt it was extreme to shut us down,” he said.
However, the passage of time as well as continual updates on the rapidly expanding COVID-19 pandemic provided perspective for coaches and athletes alike.
“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.”
In this turn of events taken to prevent a “wildfire” pandemic, Ball lost more than just his ability to compete as a national-championship qualifying wrestler.
With the NCAA’s cancellation of all spring national championships as well, he lost the opportunity to participate in the outdoor track and field season as a pole vaulter.
However, like Thompson, he realized the issue extended beyond the initial decision and into the future.
“It made me grow up sooner than I had planned as I was no longer an athlete,” Ball said. “I absolutely love sports but there is more to life than wrestling and track. I now needed to focus on what I will be doing after I graduate college.”
It is with this forward-thinking mindset that Ball suggested he would not have changed the course of his final season of FHSU wrestling had he known the ultimate ending.
Nevertheless, he still utilized the situation as a learning opportunity.
“My biggest take away from this situation was that you never know when your life will change,” Ball said. “You need to give it your best effort at everything you do because you never know when it will be your last. We are never guaranteed tomorrow.”