By Rob White
The spring sports season at Metropolitan State University of Denver will never be forgotten, even though it was never completed.
But despite Roadrunners student-athletes having their seasons cut short as a precaution due to the worldwide spread of COVID-19, their off-the-field response has been as impressive as the accomplishments in competition.
“I’m very proud of the way they are handling it,” Metropolitan State University of Denver softball coach Annie Van Wetzinga said, speaking of her team but also echoing the comments of the Roadrunners’ other four spring-sports head coaches. “We talk about the old cliché of how life isn’t fair and it throws some tough stuff at you. This is one of those things. To be able to pivot and handle stuff, it shows they’ve got some good heads on their shoulders.”
During the course of 48 hours, MSU Denver student-athletes and coaches in softball, baseball, men’s and women’s tennis, men’s and women’s track and field and women’s golf went from preparing for upcoming competitions to contemplating the idea of playing without spectators to being told that the remainder of their seasons – and those of collegiate teams around the country – had been canceled.
That series of events culminated March 12.
“That was the hardest thing I’ve had to do as a coach,” Roadrunners baseball coach Ryan Strain said of telling his players. “And there’s no way to sugarcoat it. To see the shock on their faces … that was really hard.”
For tennis coach Josh Graetz, breaking the news meant halting his team’s weightlifting session and meeting on the courts.
“The first thing I thought about were our seniors, who had worked their tails off for the last six months, to be told the season was being cut prematurely,” he said. “How am I going to tell them?”
Student-athletes, as well as all MSU Denver students, are continuing their coursework through online classes for the remainder of the semester. But coaches and teammates are still staying in touch.
“I’m making sure they’re doing OK and staying on top of their classes,” women’s golf coach Stef Ferguson said. “I check with them every day. It’s crazy not to have an end-of-year dinner, to have no send-off for the seniors, but in tough circumstances like this, it’s the most responsible thing to do.”
Seniors, in particular, have been left with some difficult choices. The NCAA is granting blanket waivers in which all spring-sports athletes will be allowed to compete again next year without having lost a season of eligibility. But some seniors already had postgraduation plans in the works.
“So now you wonder if you are ready to move on,” said men’s and women’s track coach Janis Christopher, addressing the situation of star fifth-year senior Said Moreno. “I told him that at least this way it’s his choice. This year was taken away, but if he would like it back, he can take it.”
MSU Denver coaches, meanwhile, have been thrown out of their rhythm. There are no competitions. On-campus recruiting has been suspended.
“We go 100 mph all the time: coaching, fundraising, recruiting, camps. … We never stop,” Strain said. “Now we have a break, and that’s not how we’re wired.
“I won’t coach a game from first week of March until February next year. That’s 11 months. It’s hard because that’s what we live for.”
While the indoor track season had just concluded, Christopher’s team was preparing for its first outdoor event. The women’s golf team, after several fall tournaments, had just played its first tournament of the spring season. The tennis teams were hopeful of putting together seasons that would have led to berths in the NCAA Tournament, and they were showing signs that it was indeed a possibility.
The baseball team had just opened Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference play with a road split, and with its injury-plagued pitching staff just beginning to get healthy and three home series scheduled for the next four weekends, things were looking bright.
And the softball team was riding an eight-game winning streak, had the Division II leader in RBIs in Laney Sheppard, had just moved into a tie for first in the RMAC at 10-2 and had just begun receiving votes in the national top-25 poll. It wouldn’t have been unrealistic to expect the team to win its next 10 games and stretch the winning streak to 18 before playing nationally ranked Colorado Mesa in a huge series.
“It was definitely a shock to the system, emotional and ultimately heartbreaking,” Van Wetzinga said. “We felt like we had an awesome thing going, with a special group, and to have it abruptly end was pretty crushing.”
But Roadrunners are resilient.
“What I can do is plan for next year and plan for the future,” Christopher said. “And I’m thinking of ways to keep our student-athletes engaged for the remainder of the semester, lining up some challenges, physical challenges, for rewards. I want to keep them engaged with each other and to have a little fun during this craziness.”
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