Conferences cancel championships, spring sports season due to COVID-19 risks

Last Thursday, the perpetual world of sports suddenly stopped. Augustana stopped with it.

The arrival and spread of COVID-19 across the U.S. prompted the NCAA to cancel all remaining winter and spring championships, the NSIC to cancel all conference competitions and Augustana to extend spring break and move all classes online from March 23 to April 14.

 “I have no doubt that it’s the right decision,” Athletic Director Josh Morton said. “It’s still heartbreaking.  I think you can think both things and it’s OK. I would have loved for athletes to experience what they were about to experience for the national qualifiers and also for our spring sports. But at the end of the day, it’s a small price to pay for our whole country to do our part.”

2020 Division II National Swimming and Diving Championships

Junior swimmer Taylor Beagle was eating at the Old Mill Winery in Geneva, Ohio, with her family at 3 p.m. on Thursday afternoon when she heard the news. She had competed in the 1,000-yard freestyle at the 2020 Division II National Swimming and Diving Championships the day before and in the 400-yard individual medley that morning. She was set to compete in the 500-meter freestyle on Friday and in the 1650-yard freestyle on Saturday.

The father of another swimmer from Queens University in North Carolina walked over to her family’s table and told them that his daughter’s team was going to leave because the meet had been canceled. Access had already been restricted — at 4 p.m. on Wednesday, the NCAA announced that only participants, staff and limited family members would be allowed to watch, and by midnight the restrictions called for no spectators at all. Beagle hadn’t heard anything about a cancellation. She checked SwimSwam, a swimming news and lifestyle website, and found an article confirming what she had heard. The tournament was canceled.

Beagle said she understood why it needed to happen, but it was disappointing to not participate in an event that she had spent the last month training for.

“You give up a lot of time and effort, and it just kind of sucks to not get to reap any of the rewards of it or even attempt to,” Beagle said.

2020 Division II Wrestling Championships

Senior wrestler Ben Kelvington had just finished doing a set of counterattack drills when he heard the news. He and some of his teammates met at the Denny Sanford PREMIER Center to practice for the NCAA Division II Wrestling Tournament, which was to be held in that same venue on Friday and Saturday. Their coach came back from a coaches’ meeting, and at about 3:30 p.m., while they were between drills, he pulled the Augustana participants together and told them that the event would no longer be happening.

Kelvington had worked hard to make it this far. During his freshman year, he tore his ACL and had trained to come back from the injury. But then he tore his ACL again in 2018. And again in the fall of 2019. Fighting a recurrent ACL injury and making it all the way to the NCAA Division II National Championships had taken hours of therapy and practice. He was disappointed to hear that he wouldn’t be able to compete.

“It’s something you work hard for and it’s something you look forward to,” Kelvington said. “Coming back to this tournament was kind of a big deal, and it was certainly disappointing.”

But Kelvington said he recognizes that the event was canceled for the greater good.

 “Although I was disappointed, I do think it was a good thing to cancel championships in the interest of public safety,” he said.

Even though the tournament was canceled, several of the participants organized their own matches and wrestled unofficially for fun. Kelvington didn’t participate in any of these makeshift matches, but he was honored that day with a 2019-20 NSIC Elite 18 Award for both his academic and athletic achievements.

2020 Division II Indoor Track and Field Championships

Senior member of the indoor track and field team Olivia Montez Brown was in the lobby of a Hyatt Regency in Birmingham, Alabama, when she heard the news. She and four other members of the team were preparing to compete in the NCAA Division II Indoor Track and Field Championships, which were set to be held on Friday and Saturday. They had flown into Atlanta the day before and drove two hours to Birmingham in a rental car. They had seen most of the same information as the participants of other NCAA championships on Twitter — first, limited spectators, then no spectators. She and her teammates joked that they were used to having no spectators anyway. 

On Thursday morning, the group drove 20 minutes from the hotel to the Birmingham CrossPlex, where the event was being held, to practice. Montez Brown was preparing to participate in the preliminary round 60-meter hurdles on Friday at 3 p.m. and the pentathlon, which she won the National Championship title for in 2019, on Saturday at 10:30 a.m. Montez Brown said that there were several athletes and teams there practicing, and nobody had said anything about the possibility of the meet being canceled. But she and her teammates had a suspicion after watching closures and cancellations for other leagues and athletic events as they were announced one by one on Twitter. COVID-19 was disrupting the entire sports world. Indoor track and field wasn’t immune.

At about 3 on Thursday afternoon, after the members of the team had gone back to the hotel to rest and get ready to go out to dinner, the coaches called the players down to the lobby for a meeting. They made it official — the championships were canceled.

“It’s upsetting because it is my last year of track and I wanted to go and hopefully defend my title and do the best that I can,” Montez Brown said. “But it’s also at the point where it’s out of our control. Obviously we’re going to be upset, but, for me at least, you can’t dwell on what’s already happening.”

An unclear future for Division II athletes

The NCAA championships are part of the winter sports teams’ postseasons, so those teams played entirely through the regular season. The spring sports teams — baseball, softball, track and field, golf and tennis — will not be able to practice or play in any regular-season games.

On Friday, the NCAA announced that the Division II Administrative Committee would grant an additional season of eligibility to student-athletes in spring sports. This provides graduating seniors the opportunity to come back and play in another season, although some seniors, including Kelvington and Montez Brown, do not plan to return.

The eligibility extension is currently only for student-athletes in spring sports. According to a tweet from basketball analyst Jeff Goodman, the NCAA is “looking into what to do with those who played winter sports.”

The Division II Administrative Committee also announced that all requirements for sports sponsorship will be waived for schools canceling spring seasons and implemented a recruiting dead period for all sports. The dead period will last until at least April 15.

So now, and for the rest of the academic year — the once-bustling fields, courts and gyms are empty and quiet.

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