For a moment there, it appeared that sports would weather the storm. With everything else being suspended or shut down, sports appeared to serve as the lone pillar of normalcy.
Wednesday rolled around and Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference commissioner Steve Murray offered up encouraging news: all 18 PSAC schools planned to continue with athletics, the caveat being a reduced number of fans.
And then Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19. Which might just have saved the United States.
The NBA suspended its season as Jazz teammate Donovan Mitchell subsequently tested positive for COVID-19. The NHL followed suit, suspending its season, and the flood gates were opened.
The ATP Tour, the English Premier League and the MLS suspended its seasons, the PGA Tour cancelled a few of its tournaments and suspended the Masters and the XFL cancelled its season all together.
The NCAA cancelled all remaining winter and spring championships, effectively ending March Madness and all spring sports across all levels of NCAA competition.
March Sadness officially sets in at Slippery Rock.
For good measure, the PSAC, after a conference call with the Board of Governors Friday, March 13, decided to suspend all athletic activity indefinitely. Thusly, many PSAC schools followed with announcements of the cancellation of athletic events for the remainder of the semester. Slippery Rock included.
“We support the PSAC Board of Directors’ decision as we understand it was made to protect the health and safety of our student-athletes, coaches and campus communities,” SRU Director of Athletics Paul Lueken said to Rock Athletics. “We are heartbroken for our spring student-athletes, especially the seniors, that saw their seasons and, in some cases, careers end very abruptly and completely out of their control. We will do everything we can to provide support for our student-athletes during this difficult time.”
Life must go on, but sports, in this case, do not.
The Slippery Rock tennis team was finishing its spring break trip in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, but SRU tennis coach Matt Meredith knew something was wrong.
“I knew the writing on the wall with the NCAA cancelling spring championships,” Meredith said.
So, with what would be the final contest of the season, Meredith decided to turn a contest against Salem University into Senior Day for seniors Lacey Cohen and Viola Lugmayr.
“It was definitely unconventional, but it was still really nice to get flowers and balloons,” Cohen said. “It was amazing getting all the support from all the teammates and coaches.”
Lugmayr, with partner Lois Page, picked up a win in the first flight doubles match against Salem, and Cohen, with partner Olivia Warner, picked a win in the second flight.
While both Cohen and Lugmayr dropped their singles matches, it doesn’t diminish their impressive individual careers.
Cohen, working from the vaunted first flight of singles action, went 13-7 over her shortened senior season and 9-7 in singles competition.
Lugmayr, playing from the second flight, went 10-8 and 19-6, in addition to winning the doubles title at the PSAC championship with freshman Lois Page.
However, with the NCAA Administrative Committee approving actions to allow spring sport seniors an extra year of eligibility, Meredith was hopeful in Cohen and Lugmayr returning for a fifth season of eligibility.
“The seniors will have the opportunity to continue, and we will find out soon,” Meredith said. “Lacey is starting occupational therapy school, so she’ll be here. She was planning to help with the team anyway, so she gets another year. There’s a chance to see Lacey back on the court. It might be different with Viola. She has some options. She will go to Arizona to work with Adapted PE to work with wheelchair tennis. If she’s able to come back and wants to, we’ll have her back.”
As Cohen will return to Slippery Rock for graduate school, with the plan to return as an assistant under Meredith, she has a strong chance to return to the team in some capacity — whether it’s as an athlete or a coach.
Lugmayr is another story. With a less guaranteed path back to Slippery Rock, however, Lugmayr, who is already planning on going out to Arizona to continue her educational opportunities, would be welcomed back with open arms should she choose to return.
Regardless of whether Cohen and Lugmayr choose to exercise the NCAA’s new policy, Meredith felt this season’s cancellation particularly hard.
“This is a year that I felt I had one of the best teams I’ve ever had, but I say that every year, of course,” Meredith laughed. “But this is the team that I’ve built the last couple of years and had them come together and what an amazing team they are.”
Along with Cohen and Lugmayr, a couple of newcomers were creating waves in the PSAC. Page was 13-7 while working out of the third seed for Slippery Rock and, teamed with Lugmayr mainly, had gone 18-6 in doubles play.
Freshman Pia Bruckmayer, someone who Meredith was particularly excited to watch blossom in conference play, jumped out to an 18-3 record in singles play from the fourth seed. She was 7-2 in doubles play, one of the best overall freshman performances in Slippery Rock history.
Despite the loss of such a promising season, 6-4 through the early spring portion of the season, Meredith understood the precaution.
“It’s heartbreaking, but under the circumstances, I understand the caution to ensure safety,” Meredith said. “It’s just heartbreaking for the seniors.”
With a large portion of the roster calling areas outside of the United States home, Meredith said most of them were in the process of returning home.
“Viola traveled home [Tuesday],” Meredith said. “Pia goes home Wednesday, flight at 2 p.m. Lois is staying for now. The rest are going home to be safe and healthy, a good stance that way.”
Meredith continued a trend of heartbreak and shock, pointing out that, like many young Americans, the feeling of invulnerability can sometimes mask the need for the greater good.
“It’s kind of an overwhelming shock,” Meredith said. “It’s hard for myself, but with the athletes, you think you’re invulnerable. This is a way to be safe. Definitely in shock, but this is the right decision in the long run.”
For Slippery Rock softball coach Stacey Rice, it’s the lack of closure that upsets her the most.
“We got off the plane on Saturday from Florida, and everyone left campus on Sunday,” Rice said. “There were no goodbyes or closure.”
When the NCAA shut down spring sports, Rock softball was in Winter Haven, Florida, finishing the back-end of their The Spring Games series. An 8-1 loss to Bridgeport College in the final game of the tournament ended up being the last game of the season for Slippery Rock — and possibly the final game ever for lone senior Alexa Guglielmino.
“I’m very impressed with how they all handled the situation: maturely and with grace,” Rice said. “They’ve all been granted another year of eligibility, so we are looking at how to make that happen for everyone, including Alexa.”
In the case of Guglielmino, who has been seen on Late Night with Scott Van Pelt on ESPN, Rice said she’s hopeful that Guglielmino will be able to come back for a fifth season, but it ultimately falls to Guglielmino and her family to make that decision.
Aside from missing games, Rice said not being able to honor Guglielmino’s impact on the team, who played in 135 games over the past four seasons, was one of the saddest ramifications from the cancelled season.
While Guglielmino loses her senior, the rest of Rock softball is in the same boat albeit to a lesser magnitude.
“It’s disappointing,” Rice said. “The girls put a lot of hard work in the off-season, and it’s unfortunate that they didn’t get to see that play out on the field.”
However, Rice knows the impact of the spread of COVID-19 is bigger than sports.
“I understand the decision, the safety of others is way more important than any softball season,” Rice said.
In the wake of Slippery Rock moving classes online, Rice said each member of the team has been able to safely make it back to their homes, and Slippery Rock athletics has really banded together in the face of unprecedented adversity.
“The Athletics department has been very supportive during the difficult time, not just with softball, but with all sports teams,” Rice said.
Unlike a majority of the spring sports at Slippery Rock, the women’s lacrosse team did not travel over spring break. Technically, the team traveled to New York for a game the Saturday after break began, but it wasn’t a “spring break” trip.
So, Rock lacrosse was back in Pennsylvania and competing in the PSAC during the week of spring break.
News from the NCAA and PSAC broke signaling the end of the season, and unlike their peers, they didn’t have a few out of state games to finish their season. It was just over.
Well, not quite over. Slippery Rock lacrosse coach Kelsey Van Alstyne said her players couldn’t just go out without saying goodbye.
“I am very proud of how my team handled the news,” Van Alstyne said. “They chose to go outside and have one more fun practice together as a group. My underclassman then asked to give our seniors the Senior Day they would have gotten for our last home game. It was a short but great event honoring the girls, and being together one last time this semester.”
However, an improvised Senior Day, no matter how well done and impactful, does not give the seniors a chance to finish their last go-round in college athletics.
For someone like senior Olivia Beach, who walked on and battled through injuries to finally start as a senior, her career is over.
“I know the part that everyone felt the worst about was the ending of our seniors’ careers,” Van Alstyne said. “They were such a big part of our program both on and off the field, and the work they had put in over the last four years has made a tremendous impact on our program.”
The trio of ShyAnne Toomer, Sami Gentzler and Tori Penders combined for 43% of all goals, 56% of all assists and 46% of all points this season while Beach started every game on defense.
“I cannot express my gratitude enough towards this group of seniors; their work ethic, commitment, leadership and passion for the game and our program has left a legacy within this program,” Van Alstyne said. “I am incredibly proud of the growth they have shown as young women and look forward to seeing what the future holds for all of them.”
While the NCAA Division II Administrative Committee approved an extension to the eligibility of spring sport seniors, Van Alstyne said she doesn’t expect any of them back as they all have made plans for life after graduating from Slippery Rock.
Van Alstyne had originally hoped for a postponement with an eventual re-evaluation, but she acknowledged the decision was made to keep all involved in Division II athletics safe.
Hoping to grow in the face of adversity, Van Alstyne hopes the nearly season-long absence will work as a motivator for all the returning players and coaches.
“My hope is that for all of us, coaches included, that it helps us appreciate every single game, practice, lifting session, film session, etc. so much more because we now know what it feels like to have it suddenly taken away,” Van Alstyne said.
As the spread of COVID-19 progresses, Van Alstyne said rolling with the situation and making the best of it will be a key to progressing.
Already, she feels as though Slippery Rock athletics is doing a good job of moving forward.
“The athletic department has been in constant contact, and we have made goals and a plan for how we will accomplish things this semester with these changes,” Van Alstyne said. “I feel like everyone is handling it the best they possibly can.”
Track & Field
As the Coastal Carolina Invite rolled around for the Slippery Rock men’s and women’s outdoor track teams, SRU track & field coach John Papa said he didn’t even see some of his athletes before embarking on the spring break trip to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
With the cancellation of the outdoor season, it’s possible he won’t see some of them ever again.
“When we went on spring break, all [the student-athletes] didn’t come, so I didn’t see a lot of kids,” Papa said. “We told them ‘if your day is over, it’s over. Hopefully, you took advantage of the time you did have, put it to good use. The lessons learned as an athlete: leadership, teamwork and commitment will follow you.'”
The decision to cancel all athletic activity is something that is completely foreign to Papa in his 35 years of coaching.
“It’s unprecedented,” Papa said. “I’ve never had anything close to this before. Luckily, we had an indoor track season. A very high percentage of athletes had the chance to compete.”
While the men’s and women’s indoor seasons went off without a hitch, with the women’s team clinching the PSAC title, some track & field athletes only compete once the season moves outdoors.
“Javelin doesn’t do indoor track though, so some worked out all year and didn’t get a chance to compete,” Papa said.
To a multitude of seniors on the men’s and women’s side, the season comes to an unceremonious halt — despite successful finishes during the indoor season.
The responses, according to Papa, have been mixed so far.
“Some kids took it hard and others are putting it behind them,” Papa said.
In regard to seniors exercising the right to return for another season, Papa said it’s still too early to tell.
“Some seniors are doing grad work, here and in other places, so it might be a bit too early to tell [whether they’ll return],” Papa said. “I hope some will, regardless of whether it’s here or there.”
For those returning to the team, be it underclassmen or seniors for one last go-round, Papa said he hopes the experience can be one to learn from.
“We’re gonna get through it,” Papa said. “Hopefully those returning will come back with a renewed commitment level to what they’re doing. I hope they take advantage of extra time to get their bodies ready, improved levels of competition.”
While sports like men’s basketball and tennis have student-athletes traveling across the world to return home, Papa said the track & field student-athletes have no such issues.
“No one is in a tough position [having to travel],” Papa said. “Everyone who wants to be home is home. Some are hanging around in apartments at SRU still.”
Life goes on, and Papa said it’s no different for his team.
“I’ve been talking to athletes and talking to recruits,” Papa said. “Some kids are just moving on. A lot of kids are working. Everybody is getting ready. I talked to one of our athletes a week ago, who was in tears, now she’s at home, working and she’s done and going to grad school. She turned the page.”
Regardless of whether the total cancellation of the season is an overreaction or underreaction, Papa agreed that it was the correct call in the long run.
“I think so,” Papa said. “Maybe nothing would have happened, but had we had a widespread of the virus, we all would have had ourselves to blame. It’s what we’ve got to do.”
Sitting back in the conference room of the Slippery Rock football offices, SRU head coach Shawn Lutz, offensive line coach and recruiting coordinator Chris Conrad and linebackers/special teams coach Marc Hull are surrounded with a maze of papers and laptops.
Fresh off a trip to the NCAA Division II semifinals, the recruiting season peaked in the middle of February. However, with a roster to fill out by spring workouts — which are officially out the window — the recruiting trail is still fresh. Rather, was still fresh.
While coaches can still interact with recruits virtually, any face-to-face interaction has been suspended until at least April 15.
All spring workouts and team activity have been cancelled, and in an off-season in which Rock football expected to take another step toward the national championship, everything has been thrown off course.
While caught in a tough spot, Lutz acknowledged that the decision comes to protect everyone involved in Rock athletics.
“I don’t have much more to add than what athletics already put out,” SRU football coach Shawn Lutz said.” We understand the situation and that this is necessary to ensure the safety of our players, staff and everyone’s families, so we support the decision.”
With the spring game, scheduled for April 24, cancelled, Rock football will not have its annual game to gauge returning and incoming players for the season ahead.
“Hopefully things change and there may be a chance for us to at least get some practices in before the end of the spring period, but we will just wait and see how this all plays out,” Lutz said. “Our main focus is the safety of everyone involved.”
Fresh off a season of almost unparalleled success, Rock football will have to weather an off-season of unprecedented adversity.
However, like Lutz says: relentless or forgotten.
When schools like Indiana University (Pa.), Gannon University, Mercyhurst University and California University (Pa.) were planning for the NCAA Division II national basketball tournament, Slippery Rock was focused on the recruiting and off-season preparation to get back to that level.
Now, they’re all in the same boat. The season is over for everyone, and the off-season is heavily restricted.
“It’s been a big impact on recruiting and the general off-season,” SRU basketball coach Ian Grady said. “Normally, we’re gearing up for team workouts and stuff for returning players right now. Which we won’t be able to do. We don’t have any instruction [with players] right now, and recruiting is also a big challenge. In addition to the crisis, The NCAA banned on and off-campus recruiting to April 15, and this is the prime recruiting season in basketball.”
While the NCAA garnered attention for the cancellations of all remaining winter and spring sport championships, a dead period was instituted for all sports, which has leveled travel and interaction drawbacks like never seen before.
“No face-to-face interaction [with recruits],” Grady said. “We’ve been using technology with virtual campus tours and stuff like that rather than in-person [visits with recruits].”
Even though Slippery Rock was eliminated before the national tournament this season, bowing out during the PSAC tournament, Grady felt for the individual student-athletes who had their seasons ended prior to the tournament and the work they put in over the course of the year.
“I feel for the student-athletes,” Grady said. “Basketball is such a long season starting when the young kids get to school in October through to March and into April. It’s a lot of work and time and commitment for [the tournaments] to not happen; I really feel for individual athletes. There’s no easy way to handle it.”
However, despite the harshness of the reality for men’s and women’s seniors in Division II basketball, he acknowledged that their seasons — in a lot of cases — were concluded.
“[Basketball student-athletes] played the whole season, so I don’t know if an additional season is right,” Grady said. “I was hoping for some type of resolution to play at a later date in the summer. Obviously, the element of the unknown, not knowing how bad it could get or when it’s done, they couldn’t come to an agreement.”
Like most of the international student-athletes at Slippery Rock, Grady said that freshman Revelinio Tholel and Nik Cazacu both decided to head back to the Netherlands and Greece, respectively.
“[Revelinio and Nik] have handled it very well with the uncertainty, taking it as more information came,” Grady said. “When they were notified about classes moving online, they both decided to go. They leave Tuesday, but with a lot of borders closing, we’re keeping our fingers crossed.”
Grady said he’s been in contact with Revelinio and Nik, primarily due to helping facilitate the pair moving out of Slippery Rock, but he hasn’t had much interaction with the rest of the team.
After the season ended, spring break quickly followed, so Grady said while he hasn’t been around the team, morale has remained high.
That high morale has extended to the entire Slippery Rock athletic department, Grady said.
“[We’re] disappointed in the circumstance, but I don’t believe morale is down,” Grady said. “Everyone knows it’s a difficult circumstance. We plan to rise to the challenge and find creative ways to handle it.”
While the true scope of the situation, the severity and timeline of events, is not known — and likely will not truly be known — Grady said he expects the season to start on time in the fall.
“As of now, I’m operating with going on as normal,” Grady said. “Working with recruiting and scheduling and camps. We’re going to operate as this thing will clear up and be ready for fall. If it gets worse, we’ll handle it as we get there.”
Rostering a team full of talented underclassmen, with freshmen and sophomores fueling a PSAC title run last season, the Slippery Rock women’s soccer team was excited to take another step toward national success this off-season.
There’s going to be some big changes now, and no one knows how long it’ll last.
“The biggest impact will be helping our growth and focus during this period, two qualities that we were hoping to make an impact on after our success last season,” SRU women’s soccer coach Jessica Griggs said. “We will certainly overcome this, but it will be done differently than expected.”
Despite being a fall sport, with very, very little inter lapping among winter and spring sports, as the women’s season ended in November, the off-season is completely disjointed now.