The NCAA allowed student-ath­letes an extra year of eli­gi­bility as a result of the COVID-19 pan­demic. Wiki­media Commons.

Black Thursday

It was March 12, a Thursday, 11:30 a.m., a seem­ingly normal day for spring ath­letes on spring break. Coach Eric Theisen had called the baseball team into the barn for a team meeting. Coach Nikki Wal­bright typed out an email to her tennis team. The golf team was driving to their first tour­nament of the spring. In Florida, the first pitch of the softball team’s game had been thrown. Some of the track team resided in Birm­ingham, Alabama preparing for their national championship. 

Thirty minutes later, every­thing changed. 

The track team boarded their bus and headed back to Hillsdale. A grand slam smacked over the left-center fence; the softball team had won what would be their last game. The van holding the golf team was silent as they turned their route around. Under­classmen on the baseball team embraced their seniors, thanking them for all they had done. And Hillsdale tennis senior, Kam Matthews called her coach and managed the words everyone was thinking, but no one had said. 

“So it’s over.” 

“Yes, Kam, it is over. I am so sorry.”

Ath­letes all over the country had just found out their season was can­celed due to the growing coro­n­avirus pan­demic. For the last seven months, these ath­letes had poured every­thing they had into preparing for their season and it was sud­denly stripped from them in seconds. There was shock, con­fusion, and sadness among all ath­letes. But for the seniors, it was the worst of all. They had been stripped of their list of lasts, their final goodbye to the sport they had ded­i­cated their lives to. 
The day was dark for ath­letes. Some even called it the day ath­letes stood still, but Ian Brown, Hillsdale College track senior, had his own special name for the day. 

“I call it Black Thursday, sort of jok­ingly because that was the day that every­thing shut down. Things were starting to go south, but that Thursday was when the NCAA can­celed indoor and outdoor season, they sent the nationals kids home,” Brown said. “It felt like my ath­letic career was over without being able to fight for the season.”

It seems to be the perfect name for the day to describe how everyone was feeling. 

“Reading my senior season was over…It was a moment I was not expecting for another few months, ” Dana Wei­dinger, Hillsdale College softball senior, said. “This team was cham­pi­onship bound for the third time in a row. We were done. That moment hit me hard in the chest, all my emo­tions flew out.”

Rob Zurkowski and the baseball team found them­selves in a similar sit­u­ation, but to cope they turned to each other. 

“It was strange, everyone was just standing there and no one really knew what to say,” Zurawski said. “I thought we should all play bas­ketball since we can’t play during the season.”

And that is what they did — for three hours. They would do any­thing to avoid talking and even thinking about the reality of their situation. 

For the team’s seniors, their career appeared to be over. The petition to “red­shirt corona year” cir­cu­lated the internet but the odds seemed slim, at least at the time. 

Because then a week later those odds became real and the NCAA opened what would be the first door of many for these nine athletes. 

Opened doors

On March 19, 3:28 p.m., the NCAA released the fol­lowing statement: “all spring sport student-ath­letes will be granted an addi­tional season of eli­gi­bility as a result of the can­cel­lation of the spring season.” 

With this news, there was sud­denly hope that these seniors wouldn’t have to say goodbye to their sport so soon, but the decision to return for a fifth year could not be made overnight. With another year in college comes another year of pushing back plans.

“It was a question I was not pre­pared for at the time. I wanted to stay on track for the plan that I had,” Wei­dinger said. “I had every­thing planned out for my future: get a mas­ter’s in business, get married, and get a job.  But that all slowly got turned around once Coach Kyle men­tioned it to me.”

And then there were finan­cials. It is no secret that college is expensive. Not everyone can afford to go to college for five years, espe­cially since it is uncertain whether the ath­letic department can afford to give out schol­ar­ships to fifth-year athletes.

“There was a will­ingness from the top down to offer assis­tance to allow for these select ath­letes to take advantage of the oppor­tunity,” Josh Calver said. “The will­ingness of the college to provide support is awesome.”

Then aca­d­e­m­i­cally, the ath­letes con­sid­ering a fifth year wanted to see if there was more they could achieve. 

“I would be redoing senior year and could pos­sibly get a double major and get some­thing out of it,” Ryan Zetwick, Hillsdale Track senior said. 

It was all lining up for these nine ath­letes, almost as if it was meant to be. 

“God opened the door for me,” Sam Catron, Hillsdale Softball senior said. “And I would be dumb not to walk through it.” 

Unfinished Business

Zurawski said it best, Hillsdale is not an easy place to do school, and it is hard to con­vince yourself to want to work this hard for four, let alone five, years. 

So why take a fifth year? 

The answer is unan­imous amongst the ath­letes: unfin­ished business.

“I have unfin­ished business with softball. I felt that I didn’t leave every­thing on the field by leaving another year of eli­gi­bility on the field,” Wei­dinger said. “I want to leave my stamp on the game.”

Seasons were cut short and goals were not achieved. These seniors have unfin­ished business with accom­plish­ments. It left them with a desire for more. 

“We had all this momentum moving forward. We were really gearing up for an awesome outdoor season. At Hillsdale you learn all the time if you have a goal you don’t give up on that goal no matter what is the way,” Brown said. “You don’t give up on being an All-American just because it is hard. That is the whole reason for strength rejoicing in the challenge.” 

For some, it was just the unfin­ished business with them­selves. Hillsdale Baseball senior Kolton Rominski suf­fered a UCL injury last spring which took him out for the remainder of his junior season. He was set to make his first appearance on the mound since his injury a week after the season was canceled.

“My decision to come back was made for me. Being hurt my junior year, drove me to want to be back out there,” Rominski said. “I have the rest of my life to work but only a couple of years to play baseball.”

For my Teammates

Hillsdale’s town slogan ‘it’s the people’ rings true in more than just the town, it carries into the college, and the ath­letics as well.

“In the four or five days after we got the news, James Krick came with me and spent a few days at my house. David Toth also came over and spent a few days with us and that is when I realized it would be strange to not be around those guys,” Zurawski said. “That I wanted to do it one more time with those guys.” 

These nine seniors found that it was their team­mates that became their main moti­vation to return. Brown under­stands that returning for the sole purpose of achieving ath­letic dreams won’t cut it. It won’t make him happy. 

“I get to spend quality time with the team and spend another year pouring into the next gen­er­ation. The idea of legacy is how can you help the program. I have to think about some­thing else. If I spend from July till March just con­di­tioning, what if I don’t make it? What if I get injured? It is scary,” Brown said. “If I spend this entire year focused on one goal then I will never be sat­isfied with this one goal. My goal is to leave a legacy by building other people up.” 

Com­radery will be valued even more by these seniors once allowed back on campus.

“I am looking forward to another oppor­tunity to spend each day with my team­mates and my friends living and living each day out to the fullest,” Catron said. “As we all know, every­thing can change in the blink of an eye and we must take everyday day by day.”

The old guy

An extra year of college does pose chal­lenges. These seniors will now be 23 and 24 years old, some 5 to 6 years old older than the youngest player on the team. 

“The chal­lenge comes with being the old guy and feeling like I don’t fit in, like I should be gone by now,” Ryan Zetwick said. 

It is tough coming back for another senior season and it requires the seniors to be aware of the other rising seniors. Brown stressed the impor­tance of not inhibiting lead­ership and allowing for their growth as well. 

Coming back for another year also means another year of physical wear. 

“Phys­i­cally my body has been through a lot of rehab and I have to get ready for another year of softball.” Catron, who tore her labrum her sophomore year explained. 

Blessing in Disguise

Four months ago, none of these seniors had the thought of spending another year at Hillsdale on their minds. They were not pre­pared to say goodbye. And then on March 12, it sud­denly appeared to all be over. But less than a month later, it all changed and a second chance opened up. 

“I am looking forward to having a victory lap, enjoying being with my friends and taking it all in,” Hillsdale Golf senior George Roberts said. “It is hard to think that 4 months ago coming back was not on my mind.”

The oppor­tunity has been not only a blessing to the seniors, but their coaches as well.

“Having seniors return makes us better. With their lead­ership, and their skill, and talent, and work ethic, it makes us better,” baseball coach Eric Theisen said. 

Out of the ashes of March 12, nine charger ath­letes are about to rise to make their final victory lap, soaking up every moment.

Zetwick truly appre­ciated the chance for one more go around.

“It is a cool oppor­tunity to spend another year with my friends and team­mates. A blessing in disguise.”