01 Apr Spring 2020 – The season that wasn’t
by Steve East
UCA Sports Information
“If I have to give up my senior season of college baseball for someone to get to spend 10+ more years with their grandparents or a baby gets to live a full happy life, then take it away. It’s not about you.” Paul Rouse (UCA Baseball) on Twitter
March 12 was just like any other Thursday for the University of Central Arkansas Baseball Team.
Until, suddenly, it wasn’t.
The Bears had loaded and boarded the purple UCA bus like they had done so many times before for an eight-hour trip to south Louisiana, Thibodaux specifically, to take on the Nicholls State Colonels in a three-game Southland Conference series. It was just their second conference series of the young season, following a home matchup with Southeastern Louisiana the previous weekend in which the Bears had taken two of three games from the Lions at Bear Stadium for a bit of early season momentum.
Everything changed about two hours into the trip with a phone call. Dr. Brad Teague, UCA director of athletics, told head coach Allen Gum to turn around and come back to Conway. The Southland Conference had canceled its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, which were in progress in Katy, Texas, and was also suspending all spring sports effective through March 30 due to the spread of the coronavirus, or COVID-19. The SLC, in alliance with most conferences around the country, then canceled all remaining spring sports, including conference championships, on March 14.
“Just disappointed for our team…we were off to a good start,” said Gum. “Very disappointed for our seniors and all our players because they had put in so much hard work. At the time they found out, I think it just seemed surreal to them. But they handled it well and with a lot of maturity.”
The Bears were picked second in the preseason SLC poll after falling in the conference tournament’s championship game last May.
The record book will forever show that the 2020 Bears finished 8-8 overall and 2-1 in league play. It will show that junior right hander Gavin Stone from Lake City (Craighead County) threw just the third no-hitter in school history against Southeastern Louisiana. It will show that senior Conner Williams of Conway was well on his way to setting the single-season school record for saves with six through 16 games. It will show that 12 players played their first games in a UCA uniform, and were expecting many more, this season and in the future. It will show that 12 seniors may or may not have played the final game of their careers against UT Martin on March 11. UCA won that game 5-3, just the 18th of what was supposed to be a 55-game schedule.
What the record book won’t show are the remaining 27 Southland Conference games the Bears were scheduled to play this season. What it won’t show are a combined seven games against in-state rivals Little Rock, Arkansas State and Arkansas-Pine Bluff that would have been played over the next 2 1/2 months. What it won’t show is a ninth-straight trip to the Southland Conference Tournament, which would have been played at a new site in Corpus Christi, Texas, in late May; or a possible return to trip to the championship game for the fifth time in the past eight years.
What it will show is an asterisk that says “season canceled on March 12 due to coronavirus.”
“The hardest part about it from a coaching perspective is not doing what we love to do, coaching, playing the game, being with the team and coaches…the camaraderie of our team. It is the little things you miss, just being in the locker room, coaching office,” said Gum.
For the players, it’s more about thinking what could have been.
“I was heartbroken,” said senior third baseman/catcher Beau Orlando, a two-year starter after transferring from Navarro College. “Not only just for myself but for my teammates and coaches that worked so hard all year long for an anticipated special season to happen. Just that nothing can be taken for granted. Baseball was taken from me so quickly and unexpected but I’m ready for whatever step is next in this journey.
“The relationships built can’t be taken for granted because just like that this season, some guys went their separate ways in going home. But we had a lot of guys stick around because we all still wanted to be around each other. I love this team and all my brothers and wouldn’t change a thing. Just sucks that we weren’t able to complete our goals this season like we had hoped.
“Not trying to look too far down the road, but we talk about one step at a time and our initial goal is to win the conference. We were confident in having the team to be able to do so and we knew that we had guys to get the job done. The sky was the limit for this team, so it’s disappointing to not see what this team could’ve accomplished together.”
The NCAA announced on March 13 that all student-athletes that participated in spring sports in 2020 will receive another season of eligibility. The Bears’ roster featured 12 seniors, but no one is certain yet which ones will take advantage of that opportunity. Some have graduated or will shortly and already have jobs lined up. Others may attempt a professional career in baseball, while others may be ready to start their own families. Some of those goals may be pushed back 12 months for one more season of college baseball. Some may not.
“I think so far all of our (12) seniors will take advantage of it,” said Gum. “There may be a couple who have job situations to take advantage of. But I think they all understand the value of this gift of time they have been given to have another year to play. I know I will remember how each day is a gift; we are not guaranteed tomorrow.”
FROM NO-HITTERS TO NO SEASON
UCA Coach David Kuhn’s Softball Bears were off to an 18-9 start, with a pair of no-hitters – one a perfect game – by freshman Kayla Beaver. UCA was 3-0 in Southland Conference play after a sweep of Incarnate Word on March 6-7 and was 11-3 at home at Farris Field. UCA was set to host McNeese in a three-game series beginning on March 13. McNeese was en route to Conway when word came down about the cancellation.
“I was at home when the McNeese State coach called me and said they were turning around and headed home,” said Kuhn, in his 12th season at UCA. “I was not that surprised since several basketball tournaments had been canceled.”
Kuhn, the winningest coach in UCA softball history, said the toughest part has been the what ifs.
“This season was going really well on and off the field,” said Kuhn. “We had won lots of games and had outstanding chemistry. It’s just kind of what might have been… I thought this team had an outstanding chance to compete for a championship in the SLC. But our health and well-being of our entire community is what’s most important.”
First baseman Kayla Shepherd is a senior from Mechanicsville, Va., who was hitting .355 and was tied for the team lead with four home runs. She is one of six seniors on the team, but the only one who spent 14 hours of her newfound free time driving back home to Virginia.
“My initial thoughts were our last games were March 10 and that is not how I wanted our season to end,” said Shepherd of the Bears’ doubleheader sweep of Alcorn State, including Beaver’s perfect game. “My other thought was COVID-19 is no joke. And our government’s guidelines are to be taken seriously.
“I was originally in disbelief at the NCAA’s decision. But as we were given more information, I understood the NCAA’s precautious decision. But I was sad “Team 25” didn’t have the chance to make a run in our conference and into (NCAA) regionals. My feelings have changed to being thankful for another year of eligibility; another year to represent UCA and to be surrounded by awesome teammates and staff.”
Shepherd, a preseason first-team All-SLC selection, said despite the shutdown one-third of the way into her senior season, she will cherish the time that was spent together.
“I will remember the great memories and accomplishments I got to experience with this team,” Shepherd said. “I will remember how much joy sports bring me, the wonderful people I have met through sports and the opportunities it has offered me. I will also remember how much our coaches checked in on us and made sure we were safe. We have some amazing coaches that care a lot about us.”
The Bears had already claimed four SLC weekly player of the week honors this season (two Pitcher of the Week, two Hitter of the Week) and seemed poised for a long postseason run, but that will not happen now.
“I believe this team could have won our conference and made a great run in regionals,” said Shepherd. “We had all the tools, hitting, pitching and defense. We had a deep lineup of talent in every position. Our pitching staff was incredible, and they proved they could compete against some top-ranked hitting teams. And our hitters are always a challenge to keep off balance and keep off the bases. Team 25 consisted of competitors, talent and great teammates.”
UCA has six seniors and Kuhn said he hopes all of them will return for another “final” year.
THE STREAK ENDS AT EIGHT
The UCA women’s tennis team was riding high with an eight-match winning streak and had begun SLC play with a 4-0 record, their best conference start in school history. Unfortunately it will remain just that, an eight-match streak.
“I think we were all surprised at how quickly it all happened, but when we look at the big picture, I think it was the right decision,” said UCA Head Coach Casey Wharton, in his sixth season at UCA. “I think most of us were encouraged that the government and schools were taking measures to keep everyone healthy. It was obviously a shock at how quickly it all happened, but for the tennis team, many of my players are from Asian countries. So we had been discussing what was already happening back in their home countries as far as protocols and procedures that their countries were taking to contain the spread of the virus.
“I think this continuous open discussion before we heard the news here, made all of us very aware of how serious this is, and what could happen in the United States if an outbreak took place here.”
All seven tennis players on the squad are international student-athletes, from Sweden, South Africa, Japan (2), Thailand, South Korea and China. Travel decisions – to go home or not – were the biggest and most urgent obstacles for these student-athletes.
“The hardest thing is not being sure what is best because there are so many unknowns,” said Wharton. “All of my players are internationals, and it is hard to know if traveling home and being with family is safer than to stay here until things improve. Some of my players have gone home, and made it safely, while others are still on campus. I think that the next challenge will be checking on them, and making sure they are still taking care of their school work, since classes are still going, but it might feel like they are not.
“Most of us were saddened at the season ending so quickly, but we were quickly encouraged when the NCAA offered an extra year of eligibility. I think overall our team handled this transition with poise and grace, and realized very quickly this situation is not about us. I was very proud to be their coach.”
With no seniors on his roster, Wharton could in essence be coaching the exact same team for the next two years.
“I would hope that all of the players on our team take advantage of the extra year,” he said. “I love being their coach, and having the opportunity to be their coach for an additional year is one of the most encouraging things I have heard in all of 2020.
“I am so blessed by how the team handled this situation. I was already proud of them, and this just adds to that.”
NEXT: Track & Field, Golf and Beach Volleyball