Mary Lou Mulflur is the senior coach, by far, on the University of Washington campus, in the midst of her 37th year at the helm of women’s golf. That tenure has included a national title in 2016 and, you’d assume, the chance to experience every possible contingency.
Well, add another one to the list.
“Every year people say, ‘You must have seen everything,’ ” Mulflur said with a rueful laugh. “Once again, ‘No, I haven’t.’ This is something you can’t anticipate. I’m just as confused as everyone else about what’s going on. It’s just unbelievable.”
The reference, of course, is the decision by the NCAA on Thursday to pull the plug on spring sports championships in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. All the spring championships, as well as those involving winter sports, were canceled in a directive by the organization that oversees college athletics.
Mulflur, like all the coaches on UW’s campus, understands the severity of the crisis and is fully in support of prioritizing health concerns. It’s just that no one could be quite prepared for the abrupt nature of this decision. One day, teams are in the early stages of a season for which they’ve been training and preparing for months — or years — and the next, boom, it’s halted.
The Huskies have announced they are suspending all athletic-related events and activities until March 29 — the end of the winter quarter and spring break — at which time the decision will be re-evaluated. On Saturday the Pac-12 canceled all sporting events for the remainder of the academic year.
“Obviously, it’s hard on everyone,” Mulflur said. “You have to put it in perspective — there are lots of worse things going on than losing the ability to compete. But it’s also their world. That’s what’s important to them. It’s hard. It’s unprecedented, uncharted territory for everyone involved, top to bottom. I don’t think there’s any right or wrong. Everyone is trying to do the best they can.”
Certainly, one of the most poignant elements of this week’s astonishing shutdown of athletics, including virtually every professional league, is the impact on amateur athletes. That’s true at both the high school and college level, where there won’t always be a chance to simply pick up where they left off.
Some college seniors might never get an opportunity to compete again, even though the NCAA Division I Council Committee announced Friday it has recommended that eligibility relief be provided to all spring-sport athletes.
That was something Heather Tarr, coach of the No. 2-ranked Husky softball powerhouse — a squad with absolutely legitimate national title aspirations in 2020 — no doubt had in mind when she tweeted Thursday:
“Time to fight for our students’ opportunities. Not right now — let the curve flatten — but I’ll be damned if Sis Bates, Morganne Flores, Kaija Gibson and Taryn Atlee played their last softball game this past Sunday … This is not the end.”
Atlee, one of the four Husky seniors referenced by Tarr, had her own tweet Thursday:
“As seniors, we’ve poured countless hours of time, commitment and hard work into our sports … into something that we’re so passionate about. I’m sorry but I won’t and refuse to accept this as the end of my career. It’s going to end competing for a national championship.”
With this decision by the NCAA to restore eligibility, it looks like those softball seniors will indeed get that chance next year if they choose to return. But now all those spring teams — as well as the 13th-ranked women’s gymnastics team, a winter-sports participant that had its season halted just a few weeks shy of the NCAA tournament — will have to start all over again to recreate its chemistry. And that can be a fragile ecosystem.
Tarr declined an interview request Friday. Lindsay Meggs, the Husky baseball coach, said his team was at the airport Thursday, about to head to Los Angeles for its Pac-12-opening series against USC, when the call came to get back on the bus and return to campus. The entire team, following developments on their cellphones, knew exactly what that meant.
“Our kids have been fantastic,” Meggs said. “On top of everything that’s happening, we have finals beginning on Monday, so they’re working through that, which we all know is a huge challenge at our place.
“I’m in constant contact with them, updating them every time we hear something new. I’m holding out hope we can salvage something when we get back to start spring quarter. Obviously, the College World Series is canceled. That’s a heartbreaker. We’re hoping that somehow, someway, we can get back on the field in some capacity when we get back.”
Being able to play games again would be the “perfect scenario,” Meggs said. Short of that, he at least hopes to practice and continue the player-development process. He points out that the Huskies have players with aspirations of being drafted in June, as well as some planning to play summer ball in an attempt to catch the eyes of scouts for the future.
“It would be therapeutic just to get back on the field,” said Meggs, though he is not holding out hope for a miraculous 11th-hour save of the College World Series. “If they’re willing to bang (cancel) the Final Four, then I can’t believe the College World Series will be played.”
Meggs, like the other coaches I talked to, praised the way Husky athletic director Jen Cohen and the school’s administration have handled an extraordinarily difficult decision, with compassion and clear communication. But that doesn’t make it any easier to cope with, even though players understand the bigger picture.
“Our long-term team goal revolves around what you have to do to get to Omaha (site of the CWS),” Meggs said. “So it’s really disappointing. But I admire the way they’ve handled it so far. They’ve been really adult about it. They want to put the community, and the health of their teammates, above everything else.”
The Husky men’s golf team, ranked 11th nationally, is another program that had high hopes for the spring. With Washington set to host the Pac-12 tournament, and the NCAA meet scheduled for familiar territory in Scottsdale, Arizona, the Huskies felt they were set up to do big things. That’s suddenly an afterthought now, however.
“It’s kind of crazy times,” coach Alan Murray said. “We’re trying to do what the experts tell us. Trying to be citizens, like everyone else. At the moment, they’re grinding out finals in academics. That’s what’s in front of them now.”
Beyond those tests, however, it’s fuzzy for the Huskies, not an unfamiliar emotion for all of us during these turbulent times.
“It’s a little bit surreal, to be honest,” Murray said. “We’re kind of all trying to figure out what the future looks like a little bit. The health and well-being of the kids is the most important thing for everyone.”
Even with an acknowledgment of the crisis at hand, it’s impossible not to feel empathy for the athletes who reached such a sudden and unfathomable halt to their season.
“You feel worst for the seniors,” Mulflur said. “Now there’s talk they might get a year back. My initial thought for them was, ‘Whose career ends that way?’ Again, it’s uncharted territory. All the hard work, the blood, sweat and tears they put in, and all of a sudden it’s ripped away.”