After lost season, hope springs anew for college athletes

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Nan Harvey Field/https://ubbulls.com/

On the morning of March 12, the University at Buffalo softball team touched down in Florida for its long-awaited spring break trip. Seven games in five days at sunny Madeira Beach. They couldn’t wait. The ladies were at the hotel pool when they were called to a team meeting.

“We had been hearing rumors about cancellations in other sports,” recalled Alexis Matheney, a sophomore outfielder. “We just knew that it wasn’t going to be good.”

Mike Ruechel, the head coach, delivered the grim news. The NCAA had canceled all spring sports because of the coronavirus. The Bulls had flown all the way to Florida to find out their season was over. 

“It was a very tough moment,” Matheney said. “It was hard for Coach Ruechel to tell us. I felt so sorry for our seniors. You’re supposed to know when your senior season is going to end. They didn’t have their senior night. We didn’t have any home games.”

All over the country, college seniors in spring sports were facing the same harsh reality: Their careers were over, just like that. After four years (or longer, in some cases) of hard work, they weren’t going to experiences the culminating joys and rewards of a final college season.

But at the end of March, the NCAA announced that it was restoring a year of eligibility to all athletes in spring sports: Baseball, softball, tennis, golf, outdoor track and field, lacrosse, rowing, men’s volleyball, beach volleyball and women’s water polo. It didn’t include the winter sports such as basketball, hockey, swimming and diving. 

Schools were allowed to expand rosters beyond the usual scholarship limits to account for incoming recruits and seniors who decide to stay. The NCAA said it will be up to the colleges to decided how much, if any, scholarship aid is given to athletes who return for an extra year.

So while it was good news for spring athletes who lost their senior season, it created problems. For one thing, there’s less money to go around after the NCAA voted a drastic cut in money given to Division I schools after several events — especially the lucrative NCAA basketball tournaments — were called off because of the pandemic. 

Schools are in a tough position, lacking funds in spring sports that generally give partial scholarships to begin with. Coaches have to balance the needs of veterans with incoming kids. Seniors who were expecting to graduate have decide whether to come back for graduate school, at a high cost, or accept an abrupt end to a career.

“In our case, we’re not able to carry over that scholarship, because we’ve spent it already on the incoming class,” said Canisius baseball coach Matt Mazurek. “We’re going to keep the freshman class we’ve committed to and then see what we can do for the seniors.”

Mazurek said he’s looking into the possibility of graduate education discounts to help seniors who are contemplating an extra year. He had nine seniors on the roster. As of a week ago, four were committed to coming back and five were on the fence. 

Losing the end of the spring season was hard for all athletes. It’s particularly difficult for local players in the diamond sports. Baseball and softball are demanding in Buffalo and the Northeast, where weather is a huge issue, requiring teams to spend the first half of the season on the road, often playing against higher-level opponents.

Like the UB softball team, the Canisius and Niagara baseball teams had taken their lumps in February and early March, playing in Florida, the Carolinas, Virginia and other far-flung locales. 

When the season ended on March 12, none hadn’t played a single road game. They were all well under .500 and on losing streaks. And all were scheduled to play on the road the next day — Canisius in Michigan and Niagara at James Madison. Unlike the UB softball team, they never left town before the season was canceled.

For those teams, the conference season represents a chance to turn things around, and to finally play at home. Some of them simply can’t bear to see their career end that way.

“There was hesitation at first,” said senior Jake Burlingame, Canisius’ starting centerfielder and relief pitcher. “It’s another year of school. But everybody I’ve talked to that’s been in the sport said to play as long as you can, as long as you’re having fun.

“When they decided to give everybody a year of eligibility back, I said, ‘I’m taking it.’”

Burlingame, a Horseheads native, said his decision was easy because he planned to come back for an MSA in sports administration. He said three or four of his fellow seniors will probably come back, though they haven’t decided yet. It’s hard to let go, knowing you have a choice. 

“I don’t think any of us really accepted it quickly,” he said. “It hit pretty hard. When we got the news, especially us seniors, we couldn’t make eye contact with each other. It was disbelief. There were tears shed. We weren’t ready to say goodbye, especially so suddenly.”

The Griffs were getting ready for a practice at Demske when the bad news came. They stayed on the field for well over an hour, stunned to know it was over.

“We had a rough go in non-conference play,” Burlingame said. “But we were starting to turn it around, starting to make that conference run we always do.”

The Griffs were 3-11-1 when the season ended. Last season, the were MAAC regular-season champs, one year after winning the league. Mazurek, who was MAAC coach of the year in 2019, was in his third year as head man. So they were looking forward to league play, which would have started March 28 at Demske. 

Niagara’s guys had similar feelings. The Purple Eagles were 6-10 under Rob McCoy when the NAA pulled the plug. But they’d had some big wins in non-conference, including a 3-1 win over nationally ranked Florida State. Two years ago, they reached the MAAC tourney for the first time in 12 years. The seniors felt it was a breakthrough year. 

“I can speak for a lot of the seniors on our team,” said Pete Battaglia, a senior first baseman whose brother, Joe, is a sophomore on the team. “We’re not on the fence at all. I’ve been talking to my teammates every day, in Zoom meetings or whatever. They’re super close friends of mine. Of the eight seniors, I’d say seven are confirmed to come back.”

Battaglia said he’s confident of getting some scholarship money. But regardless, he plans to come back from an MBA in finance or strategic management. His team has unfinished business.

“The team atmosphere and culture we had was unmatched my four years here,” said Battaglia, a Williamsville North grad who led Niagara in hits and RBIs when the shutdown came. “Even if we couldn’t get any scholarship at all, I think a lot of us still would have come back and finished out that last year.”

“We can work the rest of our lives,” he said. “For a lot of us, this is our last year of baseball and I think there would be a lot of regret if we just walked away. We would have been tough come conference play. I’m disappointed we didn’t get to see that, but the way I’m thinking, it’s a blessing in disguise. It’s another whole eight or nine months to work hard and come out even better.”

Matheney feels the same way about the UB softball team. The Bulls have a sorry MAC history. Over 20 years, the program has a .319 winning percentage and just two winning seasons. They were 2-11 when the season ended, after going 16-31 and 10-32-1 in Ruechel’s first two seasons as head coach. 

“We’re a very young team and we were just getting better with each game,” said Matheney, a native of Lancaster, Ohio. “Maybe we weren’t seeing the results we wanted, but we were getting better.”

Four of UB’s last six losses before the season ended were by one run, including a 1-0 loss at George Mason. Freshman pitcher Alexis Lucyshyn had her best game of the season. Ruechel saw things that made him believe she was ready to take her game to the next level. 

Ruechel has a young team, filled with freshmen. Matheney made the 2019 MAC all-freshman team. There were only three seniors on this year’s team, one a starter, so whether they return isn’t a big issue. 

“I can’t give you a definite answer on how many are going to come back,” he said. “We don’t have money available. So the likelihood of them coming back is probably slim to none. Two are out-of-state kids, so that would be $35-$40,000 out of their pockets. For them to come back for that cost and not be in a graduate program of their choice is probably not the best decision for them.”

The kids are the future in UB softball. Ruechel was the interim head coach until Mark Alnutt, looking past the won-lost record to the overall improvement in the team culture, made him permanent a year ago in early May. Now Ruechel has another freshman class coming in to go with this year’s group, who will still have four more years. 

“That’s if they stick around,” Ruechel said. “They’re all on pace to graduate after four years. So we’re hoping athletic-wise they stick around for that fifth year.”

Ruechel said the Bulls will be better next year and the 2021-22 season is when they’ll likely turn the corner. His star player, junior Anna Aguon, will have two more years under the NCAA ruling. Of course, he was looking forward to seeing how this year’s team would come together when MAC play rolled around. How he’ll have to wait. 

“Right,” he said. “But there’s nothing you can do about it. You wait, you bring in your next class and you try to get one step closer to where you want to be.”

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