A basketball team's season usually ends with the sound of a buzzer. It wins and hoists a trophy or it loses and waits until next year to try again.
That's not the way it happened in college basketball this year. Because of COVID-19 and efforts to stop its spread, there were no trophies and no final buzzer. The end-of-season national tournaments in the NCAA and NAIA were abruptly canceled midway, once it became clear that such decisions were in the best interests of the public's health.
Despite that decision, there is still next year for most players. They will have other chances to win championships and hear that final buzzer. For the seniors on those teams that were still playing, however, this was it. With a word from a group of collegiate administrators, their basketball careers were over.
“It was a big shock,” said Emma Wolfe, an Indiana Tech senior guard and Bishop Luers graduate. “Having a social media post end your season, especially end your career as a senior, instead of being on that hardwood floor, instead of having sweat dripping down your face and having that moment hit you.
“It's definitely something I'll remember forever, I know a lot of other seniors will. ... This still doesn't feel right, a couple weeks out. The unanswered questions, it's not what we planned for. It's just surreal.”
Wolfe's Indiana Tech team was in the Sweet 16 of the NAIA Division II National Championship in Sioux City, Iowa, winners of 19 straight games when the season was canceled. The Saint Francis men had advanced to the same round of the men's tournament in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and the Trine women's team had done likewise in the NCAA Division III tournament. The Saint Francis women were barely four hours from playing their first-round game when the cancellation order came down.
For the seniors on those teams, their last chance at a national championship was over. The challenge since then has been thinking about the successes of the season, rather than the sudden ending.
“(Coach Jason Ridge)'s message (to the seniors) was to not have this define your senior season and not let it define you as a basketball player,” said Saint Francis point guard Savannah Buck, a Homestead graduate. “We had had a great season so far, individually I had a great season, (fellow senior) Kara (Gerka) had a great season and just don't let this dampen your entire your senior season.”
Buck's Saint Francis team traveled all the way to Sioux City, but didn't get a chance to play in the national tournament, finishing the year 23-7. Despite her coach's encouraging words, she went and worked out for “a good two hours” before she was able to talk to her teammates without getting choked up.
“I thanked (my teammates) for everything they'd done for me as an individual player, and for all the memories that we got to make together,” said Buck, who will pursue a career in nursing. “We're all so close, it's like a family, so it makes me sad to leave something like that in a situation where you feel like you have some unfinished business to take care of.”
The Saint Francis men's team did get a chance to play in the national tournament, erasing a 16-point deficit in the second half to beat Union College 82-76 in the first round, one of the last college basketball games played at any level this season. Senior guard Austin Compton said it was the best the Cougars had played and he thought it was a joke when, less than two hours later, coach Chad LaCross told the team the rest of the tournament had been canceled.
“I just really thought we could make a run,” said Compton, who wants to start a career in business management, possibly sales. “Going into the rest of the tournament if you lose you know you're done, but you know you have a chance for at least one more until that last game. And then that feeling of 'Oh my god, it's really over.'
“It's bittersweet (that we won our last game). Obviously you want to keep going, but to be able to go out in the fashion that we did. ... It is good, on that note, to end my career with everyone happy.”
Trine guard Katy Steers faced a similar situation. The Thunder had won two games in the NCAA Division III Tournament and she had averaged 17.5 points and eight rebounds in the victories to help them reach the Sweet 16 for the second time in three years.
The Thunder traveled to Bowdoin, Maine, for their third tournament game, but didn't get a chance to play there. Steers' career ended that way and she was in a unique situation, because she was the only senior on the roster. Though she held that distinction, she didn't feel alone.
“All my teammates were right there for me,” Steers said. “We were on the bus, they all came around and came and gave me hugs, just kept my spirits up as we were heading back to the hotel (from practice).”
Instead, Steers felt worse for athletes who won't get much of a season at all.
“I was actually very lucky to be able to play my season,” said Steers, who is planning to pursue a career in chemical engineering. “Spring-sport athletes, they don't even get a senior night. ... I got the majority of my season. Best-case scenario I had four games left, they had 80% of their season left still.
“I'm just trying to keep it in perspective. What I went through was awful, but at the same point, I was still able to go out there and play and I'm just so thankful for that.”
Wolfe, who is hoping to get into a career in mental-health counseling, similarly looked outward into how the situation had affected the wider world around her.
“It's not like a season-ending injury that affected just you,” Wolfe said. “It's an injury that hurt everyone, it hurt the country, it hurt every girl that had a dream to play. I just hope everyone realizes that it can be taken away really, really fast and just don't take it for granted.”