Hurdles are part of any track season.
Inclement weather puts a damper on meets and workouts. A sore throat or an untied shoe might prompt a poor performance, while a pulled hamstring or plantar fasciitis can derail an entire season.
But no one expects to lose a season—especially on the eve of its launch—to a pandemic.
AU track was midway through its Myrtle Beach spring training trip on Tuesday, March 10, just three days from kicking off its season at the Coastal Carolina Invitational, when a curious student-athlete asked Sean Graham how coronavirus might impact the upcoming season. The third-year Eagles coach was uneasy but did not yet fear the worst.
“It may have an effect, and it will be something we have to pay attention to,” Graham said. “But as of yet, I don’t think it’s that big of a [threat to the season].”
Less than 48 hours later, that season was over.
Just after 10:30 a.m. on Thursday, March 12, the Patriot League announced the cancellation of spring competitions and practices for the first time in its 34-year history. The NCAA scrapped all winter and spring championships later that day.
“Every hour—and it’s not an exaggeration—something changed and something else happened that we were reacting to,” says AU athletic director Billy Walker, who personally delivered the news to many of the university’s student-athletes and coaches.
Back in South Carolina, the Eagles packed into two 15-seat vans Friday morning and made the seven-hour trek north to DC, where teammates said their tearful goodbyes two months early.
“Everything we were doing became our last of the year,” says freshman distance runner Sarah Maple, SPA/BA ’23. “This was our last van ride, the last time we’d be dancing in the van and singing along to music. We were all crying a little bit, just trying to enjoy the few moments we had together.”
Nearly the entire sports landscape had pressed pause. At AU, 300-plus student-athletes were thrust off course as seasons were cut short and off-season training plans were scrapped and reconstructed. The changes didn’t come as a shock to athletes, coaches, and administrators, who had been monitoring the spread of COVID-19. But the sports world turning off its lights at “warp speed,” as Graham says, did.
Athletics are rightfully not our primary focus when a public health crisis upends everyday life. “Sports are very important socially, but in the grand scheme of things, when we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of people dying, the Stanley Cup playoffs are not as important,” Walker says.
But for many Americans, sports are a distraction, a passion, or a profession. In their unprecedented absence at AU—which didn’t have varsity sports during the Spanish influenza, and where only football and baseball were put on hiatus during World War II—some of those who play and coach reflect on what was, ponder what could have been, and attempt to plan for an uncertain future.
The nature of sports—winner takes all—is such that most seasons end in disappointment.
When AU women’s basketball wrapped its season, players at least had closure.
The Eagles suffered a heartbreaking 46-44 loss to Boston University in the Patriot League quarterfinals, two days before the season went dark. No one is ever happy after a loss, but in hindsight, Coach Megan Gebbia felt good for her three seniors.
“They at least got to fight their last fight,” she says. “They could compete knowing that this could be their last game.”
Wrestler Sal Profaci, Kogod/MS ’20, didn’t have that luxury.
The fifth-year senior rode his experience and superior defense to a 26-9 record at 141 pounds. After failing to place at the Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Tournament, Profaci got another chance on March 10. His résumé was impressive enough to earn him an at-large bid to the NCAA Championships and grow the Eagles’ Minneapolis delegation to four.
Profaci battled several nagging injuries this season, but he was mentally prepared to gut it out at the NCAAs, his grand finale—or so he thought. The NCAA announced plans for an empty arena on March 11. A day later, it canceled the tournament altogether. Profaci found out on Twitter.
“Crap luck,” he thought.
On March 19, when the tournament would have opened in front of 40,000 screaming fans, Profaci was instead sitting at home in Monroe Township, New Jersey. “That’s when it felt real for me,” he says. “But what are you going to do? I left everything out there this season.”
The graduate transfer from Michigan came to AU last summer and was elected a captain by teammates who had only known him for a few months. Profaci moved to DC for a chance to earn a master’s in marketing and take one last shot at making his first NCAA Championships since 2017. He did both.
“I can’t say I have any regrets.”
Maureen Breslin paced the sidelines of Presbyterian University’s Old Bailey Stadium on March 10, thankful for an early afternoon face-off.
Her lacrosse squad started its 2020 season on a six-game winning streak by playing unselfish offense and contributing top-to-bottom on defense. But Breslin, assistant dean of online programs at the Kogod School of Business, who served as the program’s interim head coach this season, knew one was coming. Just after 1 p.m., students learned via email of a three-week move to online classes following spring break.
Lacrosse is played with sticks, not smartphones, however, so the Eagles were able to focus on their 60-minute match.
They dominated: Emma Vinall, Kogod/BSBA ’21, set an AU single-game record with nine goals and Casey Harkins, CAS/BS ’20, notched program bests in season (34) and single-game (11) assists in a 19-10 throttling. Radiating confidence, the Eagles finished their nonconference slate a perfect 7-0 for the first time in 29 varsity seasons.
“This was the first time in my four years that we felt like we were going to do something,” says defender Katie Wood, SPA/BA ’20. “[The Patriot League tournament] has been a goal for the last four years, but this is the year we went into [conference play] and said, ‘We can actually do this.’”
Only they never got to. A half-hour before practice on March 12, Breslin told junior cocaptain Kendall Goldblum, SPA/BA ’21, to gather the team in the locker room for a meeting with athletic director Walker. In the same spot where they shared their happiest moments—a cappella renditions of their pregame pump-up song, “Shallow” from A Star is Born—also came their saddest.
“I’ve always been taught to play like it’s your last game, but it’s just hard with the what-ifs,” Harkins says.
Those who remain must wait until next March to see how they stack up against Patriot League competition, but with that comes added motivation and one heckuva a silver lining: Asterisk or no, these 2020 Eagles were—and will always be—undefeated.
“I have been trying to use the mindset not that this had the potential to be a promising season,” Breslin says, but that “this was a great season for this team and for this program.”
Just one that ended too soon.
Isolated at home, sports teams become Microsoft Teams to preserve camaraderie.
AU coaches call student-athletes to check in, most programs hold regular Zoom meetings, and lacrosse keeps spirits up by documenting their surroundings—parents and pets—in their team Snapchat group.
Competitive sports will resume at some point, so teams need to both stay connected and stay in shape while sequestered. But it’s impossible to scrimmage while social distancing.
Gebbia and her staff toyed with the idea of watching players shoot hoops over video to give technique notes, but not everyone has access to a basket at home and some gyms and neighborhood parks have been shuttered. Coach Teague Moore knows not all his wrestlers have a home gym, but they’ve bonded by gathering on Zoom for daily 30- to 45-minute “dynamic workouts” similar to CrossFit.
“You can’t go from the physical activity that we do every day of the season to stopping cold turkey,” Moore says. “Whether you’re using bodyweight, a dumbbell, or a single, 45-pound plate, your heart is pumping, you’re working your muscles, and you’re getting in a workout.”
During a typical March and April, Coach Zach Samol has five weeks of soccer with the men’s squad: four games, 25 on-field workouts, and 15 weightlifting sessions. He had little to evaluate this year other than accountability. In late March, Samol planned to have players report their runs and bodyweight workouts in a Google Doc.
While teams rely on a training packet to incorporate weight training and sprint work into offseason exercise, AU coaches and athletes across the board agree that in the absence of open gyms and pickup games, lacing up a pair of running shoes and pounding the pavement will have to do.
The good news for Graham: He coaches athletes whose main objective is to outrun the competition.
“On the most basic level, you need to run a fair amount to be a good runner. So go running—and run hard,” he says. “We’re not as bad off as some other sports for training.”
The bright side of a canceled track season is an early jump on cross-country training. Graham expects weekly summer mileage to peak between the mid-50s and mid-80s, depending on each athlete’s capacity and experience. Many of those miles are already solitary.
In late March, Maple logged about 55 miles a week, cranking out her weekly 10-mile run on a scenic, riverside rail trail in her hometown of Dunstable, Massachusetts. But she missed her teammates, so they synchronized their workouts, limbering up together over FaceTime afterward.
A team that stretches together, stays together.
The timing of the coronavirus shutdown created a dilemma for many seniors.
While winter athletes like Profaci faced an abrupt curtain call, NCAA rules allow shortchanged spring athletes an additional year of eligibility. A second senior year is a no-brainer in a vacuum, but not with major life decisions to consider.
Gerard D’Ambrosio III, Kogod/BSBA ’20, spent four months of his senior year rehabbing a foot injury only to see his track season end two days shy of a return to racing. And yet, he didn’t contemplate a do-over; he already had a job lined up as a membership development associate with the Miami Dolphins. An early-season shutdown gave D’Ambrosio time to find a place to live—and to contemplate the gravity of hanging up his track spikes.
“I’m definitely not one to cry often, but I shed some tears. It makes you realize how much you care about it,” he says. “People say, ‘Oh, it’s just a sport,’ but if that sport can make you feel that way, and the people around you can make you feel that way, that’s what makes it mean something.”
Harkins applied to physician assistant school and is looking for public health jobs in the DC area but hasn’t ruled out returning for an encore lacrosse season. Her teammate, Wood, wants to work on Capitol Hill but knows she is facing a tough job market, so she’s pondering graduate school at AU. Even if she enrolls, another lacrosse go-round is not certain. Among the questions she’s asking herself: Can I physically endure another season? And if I come back, am I preventing younger defenders from shining?
On the front end, coaches are also navigating an uncertain recruiting landscape. Most coaches had almost filled their 2020 classes before the shutdown, but they are handcuffed as they attempt to make headway with high school juniors. Traveling to get face time with recruits is impossible, just as high schoolers are unable to visit campuses, whether in their hometown or across the country.
That means they’ll either commit sight unseen or, more likely, wait.
Chaos has, however, sparked creativity. Gebbia deployed one of her assistants, Nikki Flores, to give a FaceTime tour to a recruit before campus shut down this spring, just as Graham spent the early spring planning a virtual preview day for 2021 runners. And everyone is working the phones more than they ever have.
Without high school competitions, athletes could have a harder time getting noticed and coaches might struggle to churn out program-changing recruiting classes in the typical timeframe. But the stress comes with a consolation, Samol says.
"Everybody's in the same boat."
As AU's track team cruised up I-95 in March, the pain of a sudden end softened with—to Graham’s surprise—talk of a promising opportunity.
“Everyone’s going through these ebbs and flows of ‘this stinks,’ and ‘it’s not so bad.’ I have 18- and 19-year-olds telling me how great they’re going be five, six months from now [in cross-country],” he says. “What a group—I couldn’t be more impressed with how well they’re doing with it.”
As his team pushes full speed ahead toward a fall restart, Graham admits the thought of more disappointment—a canceled cross-country season—lingers in the back of his mind.
Like most plans made before COVID-19 struck, the immediate future of sports—and those who play them—is uncertain. The last few months have reinforced a cruel yet core lesson of athletics and life.
“You work hard, you do your best, and sometimes the ball takes a funny bounce or your shoe slips on a wet field,” says Breslin, the interim lacrosse head coach. “You keep working hard and you control the things that you can control.”
This spring, the sports world was tripped up by the coronavirus. But, once the timing is right, athletes and coaches everywhere are prepared to get back up, dust themselves off, and clear their biggest hurdle together.
Editor's note: On July 13, shortly after the summer 2020 issue of American went to press, the Patriot League Council of Presidents announced the cancelation of fall competitions, although team practices, strength training, and conditioning will be permitted “provided health and safety conditions support such activities support such activities.” Decisions on 2020-21 winter and spring sports, as well as the possibility of rescheduling fall matches, will be made at a later date.