By Annika Walls, Iowa Watch
Steve Cook walked into the locker room. The 24-year veteran head baseball coach for Coe College in Cedar Rapids sensed the tension in the air. He was about to tell his athletes their season was canceled.
“Over 24 years, you’re always going to have a meeting at the end of the year. There’s always going to be a senior class and memories and emotions to work through, but this one was especially hard,” Cook said.
On March 12, college athletics got a jolt: NCAA President Mark Emmert released a statement canceling all winter and spring championships due to the coronavirus pandemic. Division III athletes and coaches across Iowa waited to see what would happen with the 2020 season, workouts and recruiting.
In the days following, the American Rivers Conferences (A-R-C), Midwest Conference and St. Louis Conference canceled all athletic activity.
“It’s uncharted waters for everybody. It was just shocking, a shock to the system,” Jason Steege, Wartburg College head men’s golf coach and assistant men’s basketball coach, said. “As this thing has played out, we totally understand and are supportive of the preventative measures that have been taken.”
The NCAA had initially planned on holding winter and spring championships and post-season play without fans. A limited audience would have included coaches, athletic trainers, essential event personnel and athletes’ family members.
In the A-R-C, conference play for baseball and softball had not begun, but schools were in various parts of their season. Simpson College’s softball program had not played a game and was set to begin their season March 14, over the Indianola college’s spring break. The trip was canceled.
Brent Matthias, Simpson head softball coach, delivered the news to his team the day before their first scheduled game. “I am old enough where I’ve had to share news of losing loved ones. I’m not saying it’s that tough, but it was almost that level,” Matthias said.
“To tell someone that they can’t do something they love anymore that they’ve worked for, it was very difficult,” he said. “There were lots of tears shed, lots of emotions flowing, in the seniors especially, knowing that they wouldn’t be playing college softball again.”
Now, without a season, athletes have been trying to figure out their next steps. The NCAA granted all spring athletes an additional full year of eligibility. This places a choice directly on the seniors, but the fifth season may be taken by all athletes.
Some senior athletes, such as Jack Greene and Jordan Kaplan of the Coe College baseball team, have already decided to come back for a fifth season.
“Honestly, I knew that, let’s say the financial cost wasn’t an issue, then it would have been for sure,” Greene said. “Going into it, I’m hoping that this pandemic will blow over, and we’ll still be able to play. That’s not a for-sure either at this point. … I’m taking a risk by not graduating this spring.”
Athletes planning on taking a fifth season of eligibility can enroll as a part-time student for the semester of their season, according to the NCAA. This helps lessen financial burdens by requiring per-credit course feeds instead of an overall tuition charge.
“It was really cheap compared to a normal school year, which definitely helped,” Kaplan said. “But I won’t have the same senior year with the class because not everyone is coming back.”
Others, such as Coe baseball teammate Zach Kammin and Wartburg College track and field runner Jacque Garza, will not be using their additional year. Kammin, the 2019 A-R-C Pitcher of the Year, suffered a season-ending injury his sophomore year and received a medical red shirt to be used in the 2019-20 season.
“It’s been just taken away and there’s nothing we can do about it,” Kammin said. “I compare it to when I got hurt. .. At least it was under my control. This is nothing like we’ve ever experienced.”
Garza will be graduating in December 2020 and will compete on the cross country team at Wartburg in Waverly, Iowa, in the fall. This, along with a supportive team culture, has helped her cope with the loss of her final outdoor track season. However, it took some athletes days to realize their seasons were over.
“I was shocked. I wasn’t mad or sad, completely shocked,” Kammin said. “We didn’t know what was going on. It was later that night or the next night that it hit me and I kind of broke down.”
According to a study released March 30 by the Pew Research Center, 18 percent of Americans have felt anxious about the pandemic five to seven days of the week. Coaches are helping athletes combat this by encouraging wellness over workouts to help with mental health.
“Before there’s any worry about softball, the biggest worry we do have is how they’re all handling this,” George Wares, head softball coach at Central College in Pella, said.
Conditioning coaches at Central put together at-home workout videos for athletes. Coaches cannot require workouts during this time, but some, such as Wartburg Head Women’s Soccer Coach Tiffany Pins, have been meeting virtually with individual athletes to help create a daily schedule.
“You could be pushing things off and that’s just not healthy,” Pins said. “Right now, our primary focus is finding a good, healthy routine.”
Iowa gyms and fitness centers have been closed since March 17 in accordance with the State of Public Health Disaster Emergency declared by Gov. Kim Reynolds. Athletes have been using nontraditional workout equipment, such as deck stairs and milk jugs, to continue workouts. Runners say they have an advantage when it comes to staying in shape.
“We don’t need the equipment that a lot of our other classmates need, which is a blessing and something that we don’t take for granted,” Garza said. “My heart definitely goes out to the other sports who don’t have that luxury.”
Athletes have also struggled with a lack of motivation during the pandemic. With classes now offered online, routines have changed considerably for both in- and out-of-season athletes.
“I’m bored all the time,” said Garrett Richter, a red-shirt sophomore on the Coe football team. “I’ve had to force myself to build my own structure instead of following the team’s structure.”
“I don’t think I’ve done an actual workout in two weeks,” Shelby Williams, a junior track and field runner at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, said recently. “It’s been very hard for me to wrap my head around not having a season.”
Wartburg track and field runner Jacque Garza does not plan to return for an additional season after the 2020 season was canceled over COVID-19.
Coaches have also transitioned to virtual recruiting. According to NCAA Bylaw 13, no additional restrictions have been imposed on Division III coaches. Coaches must still request permission to contact athletes currently enrolled in a four-year college.
Athletes may meet with coaches using video conferencing platforms, such as Zoom, Skype or Google Hangouts, and attend one team meeting. This is done to allow prospective student-athletes a comparable experience to a traditional campus visit. Many sports have already completed recruiting for the 2020-21 academic year, and coaches have worked to stay in communication with future team members.
“It is always a challenge to keep them [student-athletes] informed about what’s going on and reassuring our students that we’re doing everything we can to be back together next year,” Paige Madara, head men’s and women’s tennis coach at Grinnell College, said.
Numerous coaches use face-to-face interaction in recruitment; this has been replaced with phone and video calls. Coaches have been able to have more meaningful conversations with students due to their lack of participation in other events, Pins said.
COVID-19 may also impact what environment prospective student-athletes want to be a part of. Topics such as distance from home and academic environment could be at the front of high school students’ minds when choosing a college, Cook said. Payton McHone, a senior at Jesup High School who has committed to the University of Dubuque women’s basketball program, said that she has participated in regular video calls with other recruits and returning members of the team.
“If there’s an area that would be affected, it would make the most sense that it be recruiting because you’re talking about the psyche of students, student-athletes’ families [and] our culture,” Cook said. “This pandemic can alter that and we’ll have to look and learn as we go.”
Annika Wall is a Wartburg College student journalist and is the Iowa College Media Association’s 2019 recipient of the Pat Pisarik Journalist of the Year Scholar award.
This story was produced by the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism – IowaWatch, a non-profit, online news website that collaborates with news organizations to produce explanatory and investigative reporting. Read more at www.IowaWatch.org.