Three weeks after what was supposed to be the last day of school before spring break, I am reporting on the many athletes whose seasons were cut short. While I am back living in my off-campus house in Holland, Michigan, hundreds of Hope College athletes are living at home as they continue to attend online classes and attempt to train without their teammates beside them. Seniors are heartbroken at the loss of their final seasons, and continuing athletes mourn the loss of the opportunity to win championships with those seniors they had grown to love.
The spring sports that were just gearing up for the season include men’s and women’s track and field, lacrosse, golf and tennis, as well as softball and baseball. On Wednesday, March 11, many of these teams found out that their long-awaited spring-break trips, typically a long bus drive to Florida for a week of competing and training in the sun, were canceled due to the spread of COVID-19. Several hours after these announcements, many of the athletes were told that they were expected to stay on campus during spring break and the two weeks of online classes afterward to train for the remainder of the season they would have, which was expected to include the MIAA and NCAA championships. Confusion reigned as several athletes had already traveled home to be with their families upon the cancellation of spring break and classes the next day. Meanwhile, the women’s basketball team continued to gear up for their NCAA tournament game that would take place on that Friday, March 13.
The women’s basketball team, with a record of 29-0 on the season, was approaching another NCAA championship game. As MIAA conference and tournament champions, undefeated in their season, ranked number one in the country, junior Olivia Voskiul joked, “No pressure.” As she spoke on the team’s mentality approaching the game, she reflected on their year’s worth of hard work: “We grinded all summer, all fall and all winter determined to accomplish the goals we had set for ourselves this year.” Sadly, the NCAA tournament was cut short, leaving the team without the chance to fulfill their goals.
“I couldn’t be more excited to get the chance to play for a national title with this incredible group of people,” Voskuil shared as she told me about her feelings approaching gameday. “[On] Thursday, March 12, we had a team meeting in the morning to discuss how to emotionally and mentally handle going from playing in front of a crowd of 2,000 people to playing in front of a crowd made up of only our parents and close family members,” she continued. “Playing in front of a select crowd was at least better than no crowd at all.”
Courteney Barnes (’21) spoke on her experience finding out the season was ending. “When our coach texted at about 4:30 [on Thursday] saying to meet in the locker room, we knew something was up. My stomach immediately sunk. Then, I walked into the hallway that leads to the locker room and saw one of my teammates on the phone and crying,” she said. When she entered the locker room, it was apparent on many of the women’s faces that they knew what had happened. Another player, Jessica Moorman (’21), said “I will never be able to forget the emotions that coursed through our locker room when we found out that the season we put countless hours of work into had suddenly and unexpectedly come to an end. Over only two days we went from being able to have fans in attendance of our game, to only allowing family members and then finally to not even finishing the season.” In the meeting, the coaches spoke to the team about the cancellation of the NCAA tournament. The coaches helped Barnes and others understand that “the NCAA had to do was best for everyone in our country. This was not just about us.”
Despite that consolation, many of the teammates still naturally felt anger at the situation. “We had a maximum of four games left in our season. Four. Why couldn’t they let us finish out one more week?” Voskuil said. Ashleigh Thomas (’21) said that “I was angry that my teammates and I spent countless hours in the gym over the past year for what felt like nothing now. I was angry that our seniors would not get the chance to play in another game. I was angry at the NCAA and the world. What was most frustrating, perhaps, was that it was all out of our control.” Barnes was also upset, saying that she “was disappointed about the fact that we all found out in different ways. The media had already released it [the NCAA tournament cancellation], so people’s parents, friends and families had already texted or called with the news.”
Three weeks later, the ladies have many positive things to say about their future on the team, and they have found a new appreciation for the cancellation. “If we had continued with the tournament, and one of our teammates, coaches, or family members became ill, that would have been a much harder thing to live with than an abruptly-ended season,” Thomas shared. “Ultimately I think that it was a good choice because as we see today, it is a very serious virus that continues to get worse and worse,” Moorman said. “I am confident that we will bounce back ready to fight. This team means so much to me and I am thankful that the majority of us have another year to show what we can do.”
“One of our goals in the Hope Women’s Basketball Program is WE. Win Everything. This season we accomplished WE and that is what I am incredibly proud of this team for,” Voskiul said. Barnes further explained the motto: “Win every moment you are in, both on and off the court,” she said. “We lived into this team motto and no one can take that away from us. We won every game we played and that is something special.” “I do know that we have the toughest, hardest-working group of girls in D3 women’s basketball,” Thomas shared. “I am excited to see what we will achieve with our next opportunity.”
Despite the optimism for the future, many of the athletes I interviewed including these women told me how much they felt for the seniors who were losing their final seasons. Thomas told me how proud she was to be on a team with her two senior teammates, Kayla Russell and Arika Tolbert. “Kayla and Arika were two of the best examples of what it looks like to be a leader, and we all were able to learn something this year from them,” she said. Barnes shared the sentiment, saying “Kayla and Arika were and are rocks to our program.” I am sure all of the Hope Women’s Basketball Program feels the loss of their seniors and season deeply.
While the women’s basketball team processed the loss of their season, all of the other spring sports on Hope’s campus were experiencing their own losses and confusion. Despite being told that they were expected to stay on campus to train, on that same Thursday, March 12, the athletes were told to go home. On Friday, March 13, they received the worst news of all: their seasons were canceled, including both the MIAA and NCAA championships.
Baseball’s Trace Slancik (’20) captured precisely the feeling of many athletes: “I think I speak for all of us when I say that we were really just shocked. I think the first time we heard about COVID-19 was in December and none of us really thought anything of it. Now we have a pandemic on our hands. If you would have told me that I would not be able to play the rest of my senior season of baseball I would have thought you were lying.”
Maxwell Kiuper (’20), said what many other seniors feel. “Never in a million years would I have thought that my senior season would end this way,” he shared. “We [the men’s lacrosse team] were so close on and off the field and extremely committed to the season. It was more of a brotherhood than a team. That is what makes the abrupt ending of the season so upsetting.” He had looked forward to using “the rest of the season to bond, mentor and compete with them [the younger guys].”
The men’s lacrosse team is notorious for the tight bond they build through playing together. Their team mantra confirms that reputation. “our team motto is ‘BTBT,’ for ‘be together = better together,’” Nathaniel Hentschel (’20) shared. “This time period has shown me the better-together mantra on a community and global scope as we continue moving forward.” Kuipers remains thankful for his time on the lacrosse team. “I am grateful that I had at least a few games and was able to lead alongside the other captains. My hope is that the younger guys continue to build on what we have accomplished in the past four years.”
The younger men on the lacrosse team that I spoke to shared many of the values and goals of Kuipers and Hentschel and expressed deep sorrow about losing their seniors so early. Jake Maibeucher shared that “Even though I was a freshman on the team, they [the seniors] were some of my best friends on campus, and they made sure everyone felt welcome. They lived out our team’s motto.” He has spent part of his quarantine reflecting on what lacrosse means to him. “After lots of thought, it has become clear that I am blessed to be a part of the Hope Men’s Lacrosse team. I know I am going to miss all the seniors who set the bar so high for our program, but I cannot wait for what our team is going to accomplish in the next three years.”
“One of the reasons I came to and even heard of Hope was because of the current seniors,” Liam Cunningham (’22) shared with me. “On any team, the seniors are the players that are the leaders, and honestly, I can say they were all my brothers. Having something stripped from you, when there is nothing you can do about it, is one of the hardest things for an athlete to absorb. We are so used to being able to see a mistake, fix it and improve.” He continues to practice lacrosse in his home gym during quarantine, but sometimes motivation can be hard to muster up without his teammates beside him.
“The hardest thing for me is just knowing that seniors aren’t able to play again. They were the foundation for the family we had this year,” Jack Radzville (’22) said. “Lacrosse was a part of who I was, and it had been taken from me. “The worst thing that we can do is sit back and feel sorry for ourselves. We have to use this as motivation to come out hungry next year—we owe it to the seniors and for this season being cut short.”
Julianna Burlet (’20) plays for the women’s lacrosse team. “I am heartbroken. Not only for myself, but for every other senior spring student-athlete, and for the winter teams who had NCAA dreams,” she shared, referencing the women’s basketball team. “Having two new coaches was giving us a new edge and a new passion for the sport, and I have no doubt that Coach Pontious and Coach Gunnar were leading us to our first conference championship. They still get to do that and work towards that next year, but I don’t. Fourteen years playing the greatest sport, only to have it taken away unexpectedly—it’s funny how even 14 years doesn’t feel like enough time.” While she remains thankful that Hope and several other organizations made the decision to keep people safe and healthy, she finds it hard to think about even touching her lacrosse stick when she’s not able to play for her team. “I’m sure one day I’ll come back and coach lacrosse, but for now, my stick stays in my garage and I’m trying to focus on finding normalcy,” she said.
The women’s track and field team had a lot to say about their experience losing their season completely. Their indoor track and field season had just ended, and they were prepared to build on all the progress they had made in outdoor season and were hungry for another MIAA championship. Sally Hansma (’20) put the thoughts of many seniors well: “Obviously we all knew it was coming to an end soon, but we were supposed to know that that was our last race. I was supposed to put on my spikes and step on the track for the last time knowing that was it. I was supposed to run that race and cross the finish line and hug my teammates knowing that was the end.”
Of the many seniors I heard from, nearly all of them used the words “heartbroken,” and “devasted.” “I felt like everything I have worked for was just ripped away,” Breanna VanLaan (’20) shared. “I have been trying to tell myself that things could be so much worse, but also giving myself time to be sad and embracing that it is okay to be really sad right now.” Emily Jackson (’20) said “I tore my posterior tibial tendon during cross country, so track was going to be my last chance to compete well and make up for a lost running season in the fall. It’s heartbreaking to realize that you didn’t realize so many of the ‘lasts’ were happening.”
Hannah Kenny (’20) also works to be gentle with her emotions. “The most important part of this grieving process for me has been acknowledging the loss and giving myself permission to feel sad about it,” she said. “I know that everyone is suffering in their own way in response to the changing circumstances, and I have to remind myself daily that just because everyone is suffering does not mean that my suffering is insignificant.” Kenny also continues to train mindfully. “I know that in this time of transition and stress, my tank is a little less full, so I tune into those emotions and react to them in my training. I remind myself to give myself grace.”
“I still do not think it has fully hit me, the fact that I am no longer a collegiate athlete,” Nicole Kruithof (’20) told me. “It was one of the biggest pieces of my identity for so long, and I feel as though it was ripped away without proper closure. I am choosing to recognize how full my heart is for the time we all had together. The memories will stay with me forever, and I have made life long relationships through my sport. Those are what have helped me run the race that goes beyond the track, which is what truly matters.” Addyson Gerig shared that positive outlook despite wishing things could be different. “Sometimes it’s still hard to believe that it’s over, and I would give anything for things to go back to normal. But, I am just working on trusting the process of God and knowing that the time I did get will be something I’ll cherish forever.”
Many of the seniors have found positive outlooks after these three weeks of quarantine.
“With the season ending so abruptly, I have had ample time for reflection, allowing me to reminisce and be thankful for all the seasons I have had the opportunity to represent Hope,” Chelsea Miskelley (’20) said. “I have appreciated all the love and support from fellow teammates, coaches, and the athletic department. They are the reasons I am proud to have chosen Hope.” She continues to train as it has become a part of her daily life, as it is her passion. Emma Johnson (’20) said “I am trying to stay positive and remain grateful for the eight-and-a-half years of track I did get to enjoy! We have been blessed with amazing coaches, teammates, and an incredibly fun sport.” She continues to do simple body-weight exercises and yoga to stay fit.
Jordyn Diaz (’20), captain and outfielder on the softball team, shared that “It’s hard to accept that I won’t be able to compete in my senior season and that my playing days are over. I knew it would end at some point and it would have been heartbreaking no matter how it happened, but to lose 40 games of memories and inside jokes with a team I love is something that will just take time to move on from.” Shelby Steele (’20), a captain, third-baseman and pitcher, also walked me through her experience: “Honestly I still go through points in my day where this doesn’t feel like reality. Sports have always been a constant in my life since the time I was five, and no matter who came in and out of my life, or what I was going through, sports was always an outlet for me to compete and just be wholeheartedly myself. Losing softball, in this way, was one of the hardest things I’ve been through in my life. And to this day, almost a month later, it still doesn’t feel real.”
Diaz put me into contact with several younger players on the team to see how continuing athletes are coping with the loss of their seasons and how they are looking forward to future seasons. “All three seniors were captains, and their leadership and life to this team really just emphasized who they are as people and friends,” Whitney Wegener (’22) said about the softball team. “Losing this season just emphasized that you never know when it’s the last time out on that field. Getting to play this game with the people I love is a privilege. Whenever I miss my teammates or the game, I will go and hit or run to clear my head. It’s easy to sit and dwell on the memories, practices, and games lost during this time, so all I can do is let softball be there for me in the only way it can right now.” Savannah Dixon (’21) found some space to appreciate why the cancellation happened. “I am very upset about it but there is nothing that anyone can do. The health of the athletes and the people of this country are more important than playing a sport.”
“It’s hard to wrap your head around the fact that this group of people who won’t ever get to do this together again,” shared Kaelin Callow (’22). “To be then split up has amplified the healing process too. We all lost something huge, and then to process that alone is difficult. The only people that really understand what you’re going through are your teammates, and being apart during this time is hard.” She told me that the teammates try to do group FaceTimes and talk to support one another as much as possible. “My heart breaks for the seniors and I am devastated to see them go, but this makes the underclassmen appreciate their numbered days with this sport and makes me want to work harder in preparation for the next time we get to step on the field together.”
The only two seniors golfing this year were on the men’s team, Daniel Settecerri and Noah Weigle. “We were hoping to qualify for the National Tournament again and just get a chance to play for Hope for one last season,” they told me. “We also are really going to miss investing in the underclassmen on our team as we have a lot of young guys that we were pouring into both on and off the golf course. We are looking for ways for some closure on the semester and trying to move forward knowing we will not participate in any collegiate tournaments anymore.”
Abby Meder (’21) of the women’s golf team shared the feeling of all other athletes. “We are bummed about missing the season,” she said. “However, we also recognize that the health and safety of all is most important at this time, and not playing our spring season is a small price to pay so that the people we love have the best chance of staying healthy.” The team has continued weekly meetings on Google Meet to stay in touch.
The athletes are still being celebrated on the Hope Athletics Instagram page, and through the HOPEYs awards, which will be given online and through social media beginning on Monday, April 20. A few awards will be presented daily to celebrate the past year of sports at Hope. If you know any athletes, reach out to them with appropriate social distancing to check on how they are doing to recover from losing their spring season. While many athletes have made strides towards a positive mindset, the transition is still happening and still painful for many.
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