MISHAWAKA—The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) cancelled the 2020 springs sports season in a March 16 press release.
“All possible scenarios that would have supported a spring sports season were seriously considered by multiple NAIA governance groups,” NAIA President and CEO Jim Carr said, according to the press release. “However, the growing state of emergency due to COVID-19, as well as the Center for Disease Control’s recommendation yesterday to limit gatherings to fewer than 50 people for eight weeks, meant we could not in good conscience move forward with the spring sports season and championships.”
Bethel University spring sports and any winter sports still playing cut their seasons short. The announcement came four days after Bethel transferred all face-to-face instruction to online.
Initially, Bethel postponed all games and matches taking place the weekend of March 13-15. As the weekend progressed, the entire spring season came into question.
On March 13, the Crossroads League announced that the spring season would be postponed until April 1. But on Saturday, March 14, the talk of postponement evolved into season cancellation. To complicate matters, practice could not be mandated by coaches during a postponement period.
Anticipating a possible cancellation, Seth Zartman, Bethel Baseball Head Coach, sent out a message to his players about playing a scrimmage on Monday, March 16. He said the scrimmage was likely the last time his team would be on the field together. They received the message about the season’s cancellation just before the scrimmage started.
“I literally felt like somebody had punched me in the gut,” Zartman said. “I had about five minutes to prepare myself to go into the locker room to talk to the guys to give them the official information of what was happening.”
Zartman said it was one of the most difficult meetings of his coaching career. The team spent 30-45 minutes in the locker room processing the situation.
The news about the season’s cancellation also saddened the men’s golf team. While the team finished their fall season, they had not started practicing for the spring.
“They were pretty upset [at first],” Men’s Golf Coach Adam Sharp said of his team’s reaction. “Now that we kind of understand more about it, I think we’re understanding. . .this was the right call.”
Sharp consulted with Associate Athletic Director Christopher Hess prior to the cancellation of their season. Hess let Sharp know of the upcoming changes, so he could withdraw from tournaments and notify his team.
Geandra Almeida, women’s golf head coach, said she did not expect the sudden changes. The season canceled one week after the women’s golf team arrived back from their Florida trip.
“All of my team…they were pretty bummed about it,” Almeida said. “Especially, my senior because she had high expectations for the season, and it was going to be her last season.”
The NAIA and NCCAA are allowing graduating seniors in spring sports to play another year of eligibility. The winter season athletes are not being given that same opportunity.
While senior Brooke Thomas is considering playing another year of women’s golf, she plans on going to medical school. Almeida said if Thomas gets accepted into medical school, she will not return.
Sharp assumed neither of his two departing players will return. Junior Max Vos is heading to Notre Dame next fall for the 3-2 Engineering Program. Senior Roman Ojala will graduate at the end of this semester.
Zartman estimated at least half of his seniors are seriously considering returning for another year of baseball.
“That gives a chance for those seniors to come back, depending on what their academic situation looks like,” Zartman said. “It’s going to look different for each guy.”
But graduating athletes in winter sports will not be able to receive another year of eligibility. Men’s Basketball Head Coach Steve Drabyn said Athletic Director Tony Natali emailed him about the NAIA’s decision.
Since most winter sports are finished or just finishing up, Drabyn said he understands the decision.
“Those two seniors - Gavin Rasler and Keonte Jenkins – they played the entire regular season, the conference tournament and just missed out on a national tournament,” Drabyn said. “Yeah, the opportunity for them to come back would’ve been kind of cool, but I certainly understand in not granting them that.”
The men’s basketball came off a March 3 loss to Indiana Wesleyan University. The loss cost them a chance to qualify for the NAIA National Tournament. Prior to the cancelation, Bethel was preparing for the NCCAA North Central Region Championship.
Drabyn said his team looked good in practice through the week prior to the announcement. While their game was originally scheduled for March 14, it got postponed the day before. The NCCAA canceled the game on March 16, along with all spring sports.
Most athletes returned home, except for a few international students. Three of the four international men’s basketball players are still living in campus housing. Nicoloy Bailey, a junior and men’s basketball center from Jamaica, returned to his host family in Ohio.
Drabyn said Freshmen Filip Segota and Milhailo Stojanov from Serbia and Junior Jani Griffith from the United Kingdom are taken care of by Bethel. All three players planned to fly home until they realized the COVID-19 situation is not much better in both countries.
Almeida, a 2014 Bethel graduate, is a former international student from Brazil. She said a friend of her deceased father died from the COVID-19 virus.
“This [virus] has already affected us with someone close to our family,” Almeida said. “I’m telling my mom… 'Take it seriously. Be isolated.’ And luckily, she has my brothers there, so they can do whatever she needs.”
While all coaches are practicing social distancing from home, they still have the same workload. Coaches are having one-on-one meetings with their athletes via Zoom.
Also, the closing of Bethel’s campus presents challenges for recruiting. Recruits are still able to speak to coaches through digital communication means. However, recruits cannot walk around and enter buildings on campus in-person.
“The more difficult part [of recruiting] is that students still want to see our campus,” Natali said. “So, our coaches have been doing virtual tours with their recruits.”
Some coaches are using other creative methods for recruiting.
Drabyn said Assistant Coach Mark Polsgrove took a recruit and the recruit’s mom on a drive around campus. Polsgrove drove in one vehicle, while the recruit and the mom drove in a separate vehicle. He talked to them on the phone as he showed them each building.
“Going forward here, a lot of these guys we’re recruiting now are guys who haven’t even visited campus,” Drabyn said. “Most of them are guys we haven’t even seen play live, so it’s an interesting situation for all of us.”
Both Sharp and Almeida said they do not face the same issues with recruiting. Most high school girls golf teams play in the fall. Since Almeida watches recruits in the fall, she is finished recruiting for next season.
The high school men’s golf season is played in the spring, so Sharp did not get a chance to recruit. But all his recruits for next season committed before the spring season.
For Ryan Sommers, Bethel cross country head coach and track & field assistant coach, recruiting might be easier. During the spring, some recruits are still uncommitted to a school.
“Some kids are waiting because they’re hoping to have a great season and try to go [to a Division I school] or something like that,” Sommers said. “Usually, you get recruits that you’re talking to that have a break-out season and then a [Division I] school comes in at the last second and they’ll snatch them away.”
With spring season now canceled, Sommers said he might not have to deal with losing recruits.
Sommers said his athletes cannot practice officially, so he gave them the choice of taking a break or continuing to maintain their workout schedule as best as possible.
“I gave them the option at this point, if they want to take a little break, they can take a break,” Sommers said. “If they wanted to continue to do some workouts and wanted a few track workouts a couple times a week…I would do that.”
As a licensed counselor in the State of Indiana, Sommers noted the importance for athletes to remain intentional with relationships. He said technology can help accomplish this temporarily.
“I think it’s helping people understand the importance of some of their relationships,” Sommers said. “Because there’s also a lot of fear going on and at the same time, you have to realize there’s people who maybe their home environment is not the best.”
For coaches like himself, Sommers said their role is to contact their athletes on a regular basis. The role of a Bethel coach is to sometimes be a pastor coach and come alongside athletes.
To spread encouragement to the rest of campus, the Athletic Department announced the Pilot Light Initiative. Natali said he wanted to continue cross-support among teams this academic year; with most students at home, Natali decided to have athletes and coaches post videos of encouragement.
The videos started being posted April 2 on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook accounts of the Athletics Department. Videos will continue to be posted through April 9.