Sometimes, suddenly, champions don’t get another chance


BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — Williamsville North hockey coach Bob Rosen was feeling confident as he drove to practice Thursday afternoon on the Kensington Expressway. His team had put in a great practice the day before and seemed primed for Saturday’s state semfinal against Victor at Harbor Center.

Then, halfway down the 33, Rosen got the bad news every coach has been dreading in recent days: The state high school athletic association was cancelling all of its winter sports championships because of growing concern over the coronavirus pandemic. Briefly, he contemplated turning around and calling off Will North’s practice. 

“But I’m glad I had practice,” Rosen said Friday, “because emotionally the kids were a wreck. At least they got to share it with one another. We scrimmaged and had a fun day, but the mood in the locker room when I walked in was devastating.

“It’s hard to put into words the empty feeling that you have.”

Coaches and players around the state, nation and world have been experiencing that feeling the past few days. At every level of sport, athletes are being told that their seasons — and in some cases, their careers — have come to an unexpected end due to COVID-19 fears. 

The men’s and women’s NCAA tournaments have been canceled, along with the spring college sports seasons. Winter high school championships have been called off and spring seasons are in limbo. 

The NHL and NBA suspended their seasons. Major League Baseball has canceled spring training and delayed the start of the season by at least 14 days. The PGA canceled its Players Championship after one round. The Masters has been postponed. So have Premier League Soccer and the MLS.

The sports world is reeling at these unprecedented developments. It hit harder at the amateur levels, especially in those sports that crown champions in March and early April, like the high schools and college basketball.

The coaches all acknowledged the necessity to take dramatic measures. That didn’t make it any easier to tell young athletes, who envisioned playing in these events as little kids, that their championship dreams were being abruptly ended.

On Sunday, former Niagara men’s basketball coach Joe Mihalich led Hofstra to its first NCAA tourney berth in 19 years. Mihalich had waited 13 years for a return to the Big Dance, since taking Niagara for a second time in 2007.

He was getting ready to work out on a treadmill Thursday when his athletic director called and said. “You might as well hear it from me.” The NCAA tourney had been canceled.

Mihalich had to contact his players, some of whom hadn’t returned to Long Island. He had to call his two seniors, Desure Buie and Eli Pemberton, to deliver the news. 

“We went literally from tears of joy to tears of sadness,” Mihalich said. “I mean, we’re gutted. I know this thing is for real. It’s a global concern, and I get all that. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt. You can’t help but be heartbroken. I keep saying gutted, that’s how I feel, like someone ripped my guts out.”

The Daemen folks could relate. The men’s and women’s hoops squads both made the NCAA Division II naitonal tournament. The men’s team, coached by Mike MacDonald, was on its way to the eastern regional in Connecticut when the word came. Jen Banker’s women’s team was in Garden City, preparing for a first-round game Friday against Stonehill.

On Wednesday, the NCAA had decided to play the DII games without fans in attendance, just six family members. On Thursday, they held a practice at noon, then went back to the hotel. Then Banker heard that Duke had pulled out of the ACC Tournament, and she knew the dominoes were likely to start falling. 

“Our players did a great job staying focused through all the chaos,” Banker said. “But you don’t know from minute to minute what’s going to happen. At 4 o’clock we were trying to figure out what we were doing for dinner when the news came down. Then we got on a bus and we came home. It was a pretty crazy 24 hours.”

Banker said her two graduating players were particularly crushed. But they understood the reason, and at least they had a season. Daemen’s women finished 23-5, their best in Banker’s four years and finest season since the program elevated from NAIA to NCAA Division II.

The spring college seasons were still in the early stages when the plug got pulled Thursday. The Canisius baseball team was preparing for a four-game trip to Ann Arbor to play Michigan, the highlight of a long non-conference season. 

The Niagara women’s lacrosse team was scheduled to fly to the Carolinas on Saturday for road games against Coastal Carolina and East Carolina. Coach Wendy Stone, who is in her eighth season, said telling the players was one of the hardest things she’s done as a coach.

“A whole lot of tears, and disbelief and the idea that it hasn’t really sunk in yet,” Stone said. “It’s not real, that’s kind of where we were yesterday (Thursday). We’re a little bit better today, but for the most part, the shock, disappointment, heartbreak, a whole lot of tears.”

Canisius baseball coach Matt Mazurek said it was a wild Thursday — monitoring Twitter, waiting for the MAAC to make a call on the spring season, networking with friends in the profession. At noon, he heard the athletic directors wanted a two-week suspension. There was hope, it seemed. 

But he soon heard that the SEC had canceled its season. A coaching friend said it wasn’t looking good, that the entire spring slate was going down. Around 1 p.m., Mazurek knew the season was gone. The Griffs had a practice at 2:15 p.m. He gathered the players on the field.

“I started off by saying, ‘Guys, we’re definitely not going to Michigan’,” Mazurek said, his voice breaking. “We won’t be playing baseball this weekend, and unfortunately we won’t be playing baseball the rest of the year. There was a lot of quiet. There was tears, uncertainty.”

The team knelt and talked for nearly a half hour. Mazurek reminded them of their motto, to control the things you can control. The players wouldn’t leave the field. They stayed there until around 5 p.m.

“They played catch,” Mazurek said. “They got out some tennis balls and a stickball bat and started playing stickball as a team. We took photos, senior photos. We just stayed there as long as they wanted to.”

Later, Mazurek went into the Koessler Center and the baseball players were playing five-on-five hoops. This is what young people do, they play on, they persevere, even when circumstances have been so cruel to them. 

At least there was some good news. The NCAA’s Council Coordination Committee will grant relief to spring sports athletes. They can get that year of eligibility back. The NCAA will discuss the winter sports, but it seems unlikely they would restore a year to players who completed a full regular season.

There’s no such remedy for high school players. The chase is over for the Bishop Timon boys and Williamsville South girls hoop squads, which would have been competing in the states this weekend. There will be no sixth state hockey championship for Williamsville North. 

“The bright side is we won a sectional championship and we’re regional champions,” Rosen said. “There’s a lot to be proud of. The hard part is, some of these kids have been around the program since they were 11 years old. They’ve heard from alumni who have won state championships. Having that taken away is hard. 

“But you hope it’s a life lesson,” Rosen said. “I told them, ‘At 18, you think you’re invincible. If anything, it should teach you to live every day to the fullest, and how precious things are.”

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