The world of college sports was stunned March 12. In a span of just four hours, conferences across the country canceled tournaments, the University suspended athletics activities and the NCAA canceled all championship events for winter and spring sports. Facing a public health crisis, collegiate athletic organizations were forced to act quickly to prevent the spread of the infectious disease COVID-19, yet in the wake of these tough decisions, seasons and careers are over and lives have been changed. The entire Virginia Athletics community continues to grapple with the consequences of last week’s events.
“It was incredibly difficult to tell our coaches and our student-athletes that their seasons were done,” Athletics Director Carla Willaims said. “But we've got great coaches, we've got great student athletes, and as disappointed as everyone was, everyone understands. Everyone understands that it's the right thing to do.”
Amidst the turmoil of last week, Virginia Athletics spearheaded the movement to halt operations in light of the coronavirus pandemic. Along with Duke and Kansas, Virginia was one of the first major Division I schools to suspend all athletics activities until further notice.
Before making such a consequential decision — one that would affect 750 student-athletes across 27 sports — Williams and “an executive team” considered as much data as possible from various sources, according to Williams. The choice wasn’t easy, but for them, the correct course of action became clear as more information became available.
“We've been meeting constantly about this and reading and gathering as much information as we could,” Williams said. “And so we've just stayed as informed as we could try to stay ahead of the curve … because we know [the situation] changed a lot in 72 hours, and there'll be a lot more changes as we move forward, and we will continue to meet and monitor and make decisions.”
From staying in communication with all relevant parties to helping student-athletes with their living arrangements to meeting with every coach and administrator, Williams responded quickly to a dynamic and unprecedented situation.
While Williams and her team are tasked with the responsibility of making program-wide decisions, coaches have the burden of being on the front line when these decisions are made. When Virginia officially suspended athletics activities Thursday afternoon, coaches of winter and spring sports had to immediately stop what they were doing and deal with the extraordinary situation.
Coach Brian O’Connor and the Virginia baseball team were en route to Pittsburgh for a series against the Panthers when Williams informed them to delay their departure from a Hagerstown, Md. mall. Eventually, the team was informed to turn around the bus and return to Charlottesville. Instead of a win, the only thing O’Connor brought home was glittery hand sanitizer from a Bath & Body Works store.
“I'll tell you, in those three hours on the bus ride, back from Hagerstown, just everything changed,” O’Connor said. “You know … we went from ‘there's going to be a delay’ to ‘we're not going to play this series this weekend’ to ‘the college baseball season [is] being canceled.’”
While Virginia baseball was travelling Thursday, the men’s lacrosse team was on Grounds, preparing for an upcoming game against Maryland. Even before the team meeting at 1 p.m., players and staff were hearing that athletic competitions across the country were being suspended. Knowing that his team may never see the field again this season, Coach Lars Tiffany gave the Cavaliers — defending national champions — one more chance to compete.
“I walk into this locker room and say, 'Fellas, forget the Maryland scouting report, grab your equipment, let's get out there and practice before they shut us down,'” Tiffany said. “The guys were like, 'Yeah, let's go,' and so we went out and had the most spirited, intense inter-squad scrimmage that I’ve ever been a part of.”
Soon after the team finished practice, the news started rolling in — first, the University suspended athletics activities, and then during a team meeting around 4:30 p.m., NCAA winter and spring sport championships were canceled.
For men’s lacrosse, and every other team competing at the time, the 2020 season was effectively over. Among many emotions, a sense of shock was felt across all of Virginia Athletics, especially for athletes and coaches.
“I looked at my men and didn't say anything for about 10 seconds because I was floored,” Tiffany said. “I think the men were absolutely floored too, and I was like, 'Fellas, I don't have any answers for you right now. Now, it seems like it's over.' … The reality for our team is that this 2020 version is over. This is really hard to swallow.”
O’Connor shared similar thoughts when reflecting on, what he called, the “emotional locker room” in the aftermath of the day’s announcements.
“When you have kids that have poured their hearts and souls into … being the best baseball player they can be and making the best team they can have and for it to come to an abrupt end is tough,” O’Connor said.
Women’s rowing Coach Kevin Sauer further emphasized the impact the season’s suspension had on senior student-athletes, as suddenly, many Cavaliers lost what was meant to be their final season.
To honor the senior rowers, Sauer and others on the team recreated Senior Day on the Lawn Thursday night — a celebration usually reserved for the final home race. The seniors were gifted flowers and pictures in commemoration of accomplished careers that included three ACC titles.
“Our kids were just really devastated as every student-athlete around the country was,” Sauer said. “This is important to them. It really is, and you can see it, especially in the fourth years. It gives it like all of a sudden, my career's over.”
While baseball, men’s lacrosse and women’s rowing had barely started their respective seasons, winter athletes were preparing for the postseason. The wrestling team, for example, was set to send six Cavaliers to the NCAA Championships in Minneapolis, Minn. this weekend.
Instead, Coach Steve Garland had to console half a dozen student-athletes who were hoping to compete on the biggest stage in the country all year. The situation was especially difficult for junior Jay Aiello and senior Jack Mueller. Aiello was the fifth-ranked wrestler in the country at 197 pounds while Mueller was ranked No. 4 at 125 pounds, and both student-athletes had high championship hopes.
“By the time I walked in the locker room, it was already a pretty rough scene,” Garland said. “The first guy I saw was Jack Mueller and … The next guy I saw was Jay Aiello … So you got two national title contenders right there who just got their hearts ripped out.”
Many senior student-athletes had similar experiences and took to social media to share their thoughts. Mamadi Diakite, men’s basketball senior forward and 2019 national champion, was hours away from competing in the ACC Tournament and a week away from playing in the NCAA Tournament when both events were cancelled.
“Nostalgic,” Diakite tweeted. “It’s over. So proud of all of the things I have accomplished coming from where I’m from. Leaving Charlottesville as a college grad and reigning champ. Thank you U.Va. for the athletic and academic success.”
Moreover, Jordan Scott, senior track and field star, lost the opportunity to defend his 2019 ACC titles in the triple jump and long jump.
“[It’s] hard to find the words to describe how I currently feel, but in reality, it’s life,” Scott wrote on his Instagram account. “The past 4 years were nothing short of amazing, and despite the abrupt end, I am grateful for all [I’ve] achieved and the different individuals I was blessed to call my teammates during this time.”
Several Virginia coaches immediately encouraged the NCAA to consider giving affected student-athletes — like Scott — an additional year of eligibility, recognizing all the hard work they’ve put in throughout the year.
“Why not do the right thing?” Garland said. “If the NCAA cares so much about student-athlete welfare, then I would think that this is something that should be getting worked on as we speak.”
Every member of the community lost something — whether that be the opportunity to finish seasons, compete for championships or just practice. Regardless of the situation’s challenges, many within Virginia Athletics reminded that, above all things, perspective is key.
“I feel for all the young men and women who had their college careers cut short and the experiences they will miss,” Coach Tony Bennett said. “It is important in these circumstances for us to consider the bigger perspective and act toward the greater good.”
As Virginia moves forward in a world without sports, members of the Virginia Athletics community emphasized that, at the end of the day, sports is truly just a game. While the shutdown of all college sports may seem significant now, it's important to recognize the bigger picture.
“[Sports] is not the most important thing in the world,” Sauer said. “Your faith, your family, your relationships, your school — I keep things in perspective. This is important for the country, in the world and in the community.”