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.
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.”
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.”