The Grateful Dead sang “what a long, strange trip it’s been” in the 1970s. While that may have been a trip of a different sort, Westfield State University student-athletes found themselves on a strange trip of their own when winter championships and spring sport seasons were cancelled across the nation due to the COVID-19 coronavirus crisis.
Late on the afternoon of Thursday, March 12, 2020, the NCAA sent out the message that they were cancelling all winter championship events, and all spring championships – effectively ending the season for thousands of student-athletes across the nation.
Westfield State found itself with a pair of student-athletes in North Carolina for the NCAA Division III indoor track and field national championship meet, and about 90 athletes and coaches in Florida, where baseball, softball and lacrosse were all competing during the spring break week.
The NCAA edict was issued just as the Owls’ baseball team took the field to play Rhodes (Tenn.) College, the 12th-ranked team in the nation, in a game in Auburndale, Fla.
“Pregame, coach Bashaw’s message was that ‘as of right now, we’re still playing,’ but even as the game was going on, you could look around the complex and see teams hugging and crying, and you knew things weren’t going well,” said Owls’ junior first baseman Sean Moorhouse, of Westfield.
“I just tried to have a clear head for the game,” said Westfield State starting pitcher Shane Bogli. “I knew the day before I was getting the start, and there were a lot of rumors about the season … I was locked in on the game, I want to be a top of the staff pitcher and get the ball and get a signature win against a top-level team like that. You know it might be our seniors’ last game, and in a way – it’s the most important game I’ve ever pitched, even though it wasn’t a championship game. You always want to win your last game.”
“Afterwards, we found out it was our last game and it was really emotional,” said Moorhouse. “The seniors didn’t know if it would be their last game or if they would get eligibility back. Put simply it was incredibly strange. Something we’d never expected and never seen.”
“It was really sad after the game,” said baseball senior 2B Casey Boudreau in a stream of consciousness while recalling the emotions of that evening. “I thought we had a really good team this year. It still hasn’t really set in. You had to take it all in. No one had ever gone through that. It’s crazy. My first thought was to look around for the other seniors – Jimmy (Valenti), (Jake) Gibb, Dools (Brett Dooley) and Pinge (Dan Pingeton). They might not be able to come back. I wanted to be sure I saw them first.”
Bogli’s face showed the shock and finality of hearing the season was over postgame.
“Usually, you know it’s going to be the seniors’ last game, and you have a chance to say good bye. As a transfer, I’ve only been with these guys for a year and half, and the chemistry on this team, the way they brought a young team together, it was just crazy to have it sinking in that it was their last game after we’d played just five games. I was trying to put myself in their shoes. You realize Gibb might not get to have a senior season. It’s tough to see.”
Softball was enjoying an off day in Florida when the news came down.
“We had had some hope that the MASCAC might be able to continue playing at some point,” said Owls softball senior second baseman Kaitlynn Prophet. “But then we heard from the baseball boys that they essentially came off the field, some of them crying, after the game and that that was it.”
“I had spoken to Coach [Colleen] Bannister before we played on Wednesday and told her I hoped it wasn’t going to be my last game,” said Prophet. “But at that point we still thought we were at least finishing the games on the Florida trip.”
The situation with the COVID-19 crisis evolved quickly that week. Several Owls teams departed for Florida on March 6. The NBA suspended play after the games on Wed., March 11, and the other professional leagues followed. The NCAA was discussing playing games without fans, but ultimately announced the decision to cancel championships on the 12th.
“We had seen that Amherst College had cancelled their season, and like every three hours we heard some new news, or that a team had cancelled,” said Moorhouse. “It started hitting closer to home.”
“I had talked to several of my friends at other schools, who I had played club softball with, and we knew other teams were starting to cancel their seasons,” said softball senior first baseman Alexandra Czarkosky.
Across the state in Englewood, Fla., the Owls women’s lacrosse team was having a similar experience. Westfield was coming off back-to-back wins, including a win over preseason #20 Illinois Wesleyan, and the trip and the season was progressing well for the three-time defending conference champs.
“We had 12 freshmen on the team, but we were coming together as a team so fast,” said senior captain Sam Donohoe. “The time in Florida really pulled us together and it felt like we had all been one team for years.”
“Thursday night coach Pechulis pulled all of the seniors together for a meeting, and as soon as we saw his face we just knew what was happening,” said Donohoe. “It was really upsetting for the seniors . . . we were supposed to play the next day, and the season ended so abruptly that there wasn’t that closure of knowing it was coming to an end.”
Meanwhile, in North Carolina …
“Keefer [William Canty], and [throws coach] Carly Markos and I were walking around downtown and we saw on Instagram that the championships had been canceled,” said Westfield State senior Lauren Gilderdale, a national qualifier in the 20-pound weight throw event.
“We went back to the hotel to meet with [head] coach [Sean] O’Brien, and spent a couple hours trying to find a flight home. It was almost shock. It didn’t really set in until the next morning that it was really canceled because of COVID-19. We didn’t expect that to happen, but we understood it. There really wasn’t anything else the NCAA could do.”
“It’s really emotional,” said Gilderdale. “I worked so hard for so many years, and it was my dream to be an All-American … to be there and know you belong in that competition, and to even feel the circle in practice… it’s a little sore, a little painful.”
“In the moment our season was cancelled it seemed quick and extreme,” said Moorhouse. “But based on what we know now it’s obvious some smart people were making good decisions on our behalf.”
The track and field contingent spent the evening playing mini-golf before they caught a flight home the next morning.
“The next couple of days (in Florida) we just tried to enjoy the weather, and the time we got to spend around other people,” said Prophet. “I think we all knew that we’d be scattering, and we wanted to make something out of it.”
“I don’t know how Kait kept it all together as a senior,” said Czarkosky. “I would have been devastated as a senior if I didn’t know I was coming back next year for grad school, and could use my last year of eligibility. Kait handled it really well as a senior and it was super impressive how she did it.”
Women’s lacrosse ended up going to the fields in uniform on Friday, and warmed up as they would have, then staged an impromptu ‘senior day’ for their five seniors.
“I didn’t know it was happening,” said Donohoe. “Our tradition is that the other players on the team speak about the impact that the seniors had. It was obvious that our team was very close, practically everyone was crying. But it really made me feel appreciated to find out how much they looked up to us, and it was nice that my parents were able to be there in Florida.”
The team spent the rest of the day at the beach before going out to dinner.
“We tried to enjoy the fact that we got to go to Florida, and play a couple of games, and that a lot of the teams didn’t get that chance this season,” said Donohoe.
“The next day was stressful,” said Moorhouse. “We realized how serious it was, that we’re away from home, we didn’t have a ton of info. For some of the younger guys, it was first time away from home, first flights. I had a lot of younger guys in our condo, and I told them to remember it, it was going to be historical. Beyond that, it was sunny outside, and we have a great group of guys. Coach Bashaw put together a family cookout for us, and guys had their gloves out and were playing catch just like it was a family picnic and made it a lot less stressful of a situation.”
“Coach Bashaw pulled the seniors together and asked what we wanted to do with the off day,” said Boudreau. “We were shocked to have a full day off in Florida. Usually we have a varsity or JV game each day. We told coach we’d just like to stick around the resort. It was just nice to enjoy the company of the team in the moment, not knowing exactly what would happen with school and classes when we got back up north.”
“The week before teams left for Florida, we had some preliminary conversations on campus, and the guidance was still that domestic travel was safe,” said Westfield State athletic director Richard Lenfest. “We were following information from the NCAA for hand washing and hygiene, and not shaking hands postgame. Starting on Monday the 9th, a lot more information was becoming available on COVID-19. I had an incredible number of conversations with campus leadership and the conference, and by early in the week it looked like we would finish our trip, then the league would suspend the season for a few weeks.”
“By Thursday, cancellation became the most prudent move as there was more information to avoid large groups, and with the NCAA suspending championships we had no choice but to suspend the seasons,” said Lenfest. “With so many athletes in Florida it wasn’t feasible to change the return flights, so we avoided competition, and the large crowds at the various complexes at which the teams compete for the final day and a half. Fortunately, everyone on those trips arrived home safely and we’ve had no reported issues with the illness.”
Westfield State University had extended its spring break by a week in the immediate wake of the COVID-19 crisis. A few days later the school announced that all classes would be conducted online for the remainder of the semester, and students would move out of the residence halls in shifts in order to maintain ‘social distancing’ guidelines.
The NCAA has announced that all spring-sport student-athletes have been granted an extra year of eligibility – as the shortened 2020 season will not count as a year of eligibility used.
“The month of March has been a whirlwind of emotions for everyone,” said Lenfest. “As an athletics department we went from the excitement of basketball winning the conference tournament, the beginning our spring seasons, and preparing to have two student-athletes compete at the NCAA Track & Field Championships to everything being postponed, suspended to finally being cancelled in a matter of four days.”
“I’m proud how well our student-athletes handled the situation, and how mature they have been in the face of what’s devastating information. I’m also pleased that the NCAA moved quickly to announce a blanket eligibility waiver, which helped lessen the blow for many of the athletes,” Lenfest added.
“From the top of my head, it may be a benefit for us as a team,” said Moorhouse. “We went into the year with a young team, and a lot of guys who were getting increased playing time like I was. But I think going through this together will have a positive outcome for the future, we will have a bond, we will all be more mature, maybe not on the field but in life experience. It’s important to handle it, to stick together and roll with the punches.”
Czarkosky had already applied to Westfield State’s graduate program in psychology and was interested in helping out as a coach in 2021. Knowing that she could now come back and play “It made it an easy decision to stay at Westfield and enroll in grad school in the fall. “I like the campus and the professors, so it really made it an easy decision after applying to five or six graduate programs.”
Prophet plans to graduate with a degree in business marketing and at the moment, she doesn’t plan to return to Westfield State, though she left the door open a crack to look at grad school if the job market is down after the pandemic. “I’ll remember [Westfield State softball] as a family. It was hard going away to school my first year, but softball gave me a sense of family away from home. I’ll even remember the bus rides and the little notes we gave to each other.”
Gilderdale hopes to return to use her final semester of eligibility. “I have a minor in psychology that I can add as a major. I’d love to come back, and love my coaches and teammates.”
Moorhouse will have two years of eligibility remaining. He’s keeping busy during the quarantine working with the Westfield Starfires front office (his father Don, is a co-owner of the team). The biggest joke in Westfield is that I led the league in home runs,” said Moorhouse, who hit a pair of bombs opening day. “But I regret that I was off to a good start to the season and would like to have seen that through. Hopefully I can get as many AB’s as possible this summer and be ready to go next year.”
Donohoe is weighing a professional job offer against the possibility of returning to school next year. A math major with a business management minor, she’s considering adding a second major in economics. “My first thought is to come back,” said Donohoe. “The last couple weeks have been pretty rough. We didn’t have a chance to play a home game this season. It feels like I’m not done with my college career yet – I didn’t get a chance to play my last game.”
Bogli said the time off will “give us even more motivation for next year. It’s big for the young guys on the team. We didn’t have a senior pitcher, a lot of the freshmen and sophomores got into games and were playing well. That experience under their belts will help, and if they decide to use a fifth-year down the road, we’ll have a real veteran team. It’s the most hard-working freshman class I have ever seen. They work every day. We’ll be even better next year.”
An education major, Boudreau was already planning to come back to Westfield in the fall of 2020 to complete his student teaching. He plans to start graduate school in the spring while using his final year of eligibility. “I’m ready,” he said. “Unfinished business.” – Courtesy of Westfield State University Associate Athletic Director Dave Caspole