08 Apr Spring 2020 – The season that wasn’t
by Steve East
UCA Sports Information
“We all have learned that our work and dedication is for the love of the game. We do not need a stage. The greatness is within us.”
Natasha Vincent – UCA women’s golf coach.
When the coronavirus (COVID-19) shut down collegiate athletics all over the country in March, it cut short several promising seasons for the University of Central Arkansas spring sports programs and dashed the hopes and dreams of a good number of student-athletes.
For two groups of UCA student-athletes, it eliminated their 2020 season altogether.
The UCA track and field teams had just finished up the indoor season, setting numerous school records in the process, and were set to host the first outdoor meet of the season on March 14 at the Bill Stephens Track Complex. Now they won’t host that meet or any meets at all this season.
The week prior to the shutdown, head coach Richard Martin had announced his retirement from coaching after 44 years at UCA, effective at the conclusion of the 2020 outdoor season. Little did he know he had already coached his final track meet.
“It has been a very shocking thing to deal with in all my years of coaching,” said Martin. “I feel for the athletes, especially the seniors, because they had worked so hard to get to this point. But life must go on and we just have to deal with this the best we can.
“We had a great indoor season and I know we would have had an even better outdoor season this year. But as each day goes by, I know the right decision was made to end the season. A person’s life is more important and I believe our athletes are adjusting very well as young adults. They can talk about this for years and years to come.”
Two record-setting Arkansas sprinters at UCA, senior Ajah Criner from Hope and senior Zachary Jewell from Mena, could have possibly run their final races at the indoor championships. Criner said, ironically, she and her teammates received word of the cancellation in the middle of a workout.
“I was really upset. I didn’t want to practice anymore,” said Criner, UCA’s record holder in the indoor 200 and 400 meters and the outdoor 200 meters. “It made me really sad because this was the last semester of my senior year, and it got cut short. It hurt really bad.”
Criner would like to return and run again – with her eye on a couple more school records – but may not be able to work out the logistics. She graduates with a degree in exercise science in May and enters the athletic training master’s program in July.
“Now, since it was my senior year, I’ve got to see if I can make it work with grad school, my athletic training schedule,” she said. “So it definitely got a little bit tougher. I really want to come back and run, but I also know it’s going to be kind of hard trying to work around everything, because it’s going to be so time consuming.”
Jewell, an equally decorated sprinter with records in the indoor 60 and 200 meters and the outdoor 200, said frustration was the initial feeling about the shutdown.
“It has been frustrating but all you can do is continue to step forward and do what needs to be done,” said Jewell. “I think our team would have done really well if the season would have continued. We just finished up (indoor) conference and I felt like we had a lot of energy that we were carrying toward the outdoor season.
“The thing I’ll remember most is that it could have been a season for great things to happen, but we will never know the outcome. I still have eligibility and I plan on taking advantage of it. I am in position to take advantage because UCA offers a degree in something I am interested in. This will allow me to take advantage of my last year of eligibility.
“I’m just going to put it behind me and continue to work hard for next year.”
NO MORE TEE TIMES
Collegiate golf teams play over both semesters, so UCA’s men’s and women’s golf teams had completed a good chunk of their 2019-20 schedules. The men had two regular-season tournaments remaining before the SLC Championship in April, while the women had three plus the championship.
Natasha Vincent’s women’s golf team was en route to one of those tournaments, in Augusta, Ga., when the news broke.
“I just felt a little defeated, because we had practiced so intently this semester and were eager to play in the event,” said Vincent. “At that time, we did not know our entire season was being cancelled. They were bummed and a little worried…something this serious has never happened to organized sport.
“A few hours into the trip home, questions were rising in regards to practice and play, and if we could play tomorrow. It was hard to say “I don’t know…’”
Sophomore Gracen Blount of Hot Springs is part of that team, one that features no seniors. The UCA golfers can at least continue to practice their sport, even though “official” team practices are no longer allowed for other sports.
“Fortunately, golf is a sport that naturally practices social distances so I am still able to practice,” said Blount. “Our team is very young, but strong. We have been working really hard and I had very high hopes for this season.
“It has all just happened so fast. The cancellation of our whole season will definitely not be forgotten.”
Vincent said there is now doubt in her mind her team will bounce back next year.
“Getting better daily doesn’t stop, it is a part of who they are and how we operate as a program,” she said. “We all have learned that our work and dedication is for the love of the game. We do not need a stage. The greatness is within us. We can prove our ability and experience success daily. We still have our standards that have to be met.”
The men’s golf team, under the direction of Steve Runge, put together one of the best tournaments in school history the previous month at the LaTour Intercollegiate in Mathews, La. UCA shot an 11-under 833 as a team, including seven individual rounds in the 60s. There are no seniors on the squad.
“Mostly a feeling of shock when I heard. It felt like the world just stopped normal activity,” said Runge. “My players seemed like they knew it was coming and took it in stride. They had a couple questions like, will we get another year of eligibility? Since the announcement, I’ve mostly just been communicating with them and making sure they are OK with everything.”
Junior Miles Smith of Little Rock, who has been spending his spare time on the golf course and fishing, said there were high hopes for this year’s men’s golf team.
“I think the team could have gone a long way this season,” he said. “We all put in a lot of work and were very disappointed to see the season come to an end. I hate it for the seniors (in other sports) for their season to be cut short because they have worked very had to be in the position that they are.”
Runge said the best memory of the shortened season was the LaTour tournament.
“I’ll definitely remember most our tournament at LaTour in mid-February,” he said. “We finished second as a team and (sophomore) Josh Turnock and (freshman) Blaine Calhoon were both in contention to win late in the tournament (they finished tied for second). It was great to see the smiles on the players’ and the parents’ faces as we shot well under par as a team.”
THE BEACH IS CLOSED
First-year head coach Autumn Erickson knew something was wrong when she was informed that her team would not be traveling to California for an upcoming tournament due to the serious coronavirus issues on the West Coast. UCA hosted its own tournament that weekend and finished 3-1, and was set to take a 7-1 overall record to Houston for the Southland Conference Showcase on March 14-15.
“I decided to keep the information to myself until the completion of our home tournament because I didn’t want my players’ disappointment or emotions affecting their focus on the more immediate task at hand,” said Erickson. “I broke the devastating news to our team after our final match on Saturday, but also said this was likely the beginning of a similar series of decisions. On Monday, we received the news of suspension until March 30, and by Friday, we received the final decision that our season was completely cancelled.”
Erickson said the initial reaction was obviously disappointment.
“Conflicting emotions of disappointment and understanding,” she said. “I know the girls worked really hard over the fall off-season and beginning of spring season. We had started on such a high, being 7-1, and were about to have the opportunity to measure up to other teams in our conference. However, I want nothing more than the safety and success of our student athletes, so I remained fairly calm and tried to focus on how to move forward with a positive mindset despite the circumstances.
“My players were extremely heart-broken and disappointed. They had formed a lot of chemistry and really enjoyed being together as a team. Volleyball will always be a part of their lives, but knowing they would have to say goodbye to our seniors and their teammates was perhaps the hardest part for them to process. But I think it is important to understand that disappointment is part of life, and it is how you move forward that matters.”
The Beach Bears were playing a full SLC schedule for the first time this season with eight schools now playing the sport. UCA had four seniors on its roster, including Mackenzie Dear, Makenna Schmitt, Kelly Douglas and Kimmie Schnars.
“Two of my seniors were accepted to physical therapy school next year,” said Erickson. “Even though they would love to play another year, the time and money they spent on that process is not worth sacrificing. One of my other seniors is weighing her options, because continuing another season would mean applying/entering a graduate school/master’s program, which is not something she had been planning to do. While it’s not outside the realm of possibility, it limits the time she has to make that decision and see it through.”
Dear, one of the physical therapy student-athletes, said her view on the cancellation of the season has definitely changed.
“Everything went from what felt like 0 to 100 in a matter of hours on March 12,” said Dear, a captain who has been with the program since its inception four years ago. “I had not expected such big decisions to be made in what seemed like such a short amount of time. In the beginning, I felt as if these decisions were rushed and made based on big programs, like the NBA, shutting down their seasons. At the time, COVID-19 did not seem like the threat that it is now since it was so far away from Arkansas.
“But over the past few weeks, my feelings about our season getting cut short have dramatically changed. I definitely feel that it was the only decision to protect everybody’s safety, not just the student-athletes, which was hard to see at first. I have come to peace with my time as an athlete ending – life is so much bigger than a sport – this is a critical time where everybody needs to band together for a common good.”
Dear is one that will not be able to take advantage of the extra season of eligibility because of her workload in UCA’s prestigious physical therapy school.
“Although I am missing my senior season, I feel like I have grown so much more as a person than I ever could have as a player by playing beach volleyball at UCA,” Dear said. “So while my playing got cut short, I believe that I have truly taken everything away that I could from being a student-athlete. Life is bigger than a sport. Inevitably, at some point, my life will not include sports at a competitive level and I know that my time as a student-athlete has prepared me for that.”
Dear has at least one lasting memory from her shortened senior season.
“I can say that I went out my senior year undefeated as a pair with Aly Brinkley, so maybe it isn’t all bad.”