It was as if Tom Brady went up to the line and shouted “COVID-19! Hut! Hut!” and all the players scattered, the fans streamed to the exits, and the stadium became a quiet, empty shell.
Actually, the NFL continues to make news because this is the time of off-season transactions and the buildup to the draft. But all the sports that would be playing now — basketball, baseball, et al. — are shut down from the professional to the youth leagues because of the coronavirus pandemic.
NBA fans can only hope that an interesting season in which the Lakers and Clippers are both title contenders can eventually be played out to some conclusion. The sports blackout really hit home in Santa Barbara when the NCAA and the NAIA decided to cancel their basketball championships as well as all spring sports competitions.
A week ago, the Westmont College women’s basketball team was celebrating after being named the No. 1 overall seed in the 32-team NAIA Championships. The Warriors’ excitement was doused a day later when the tournament was called off. They held one more practice for old times’ sake.
Coach Kirsten Moore felt sorrow for Maud Ranger, the team’s only senior, who would miss out on her last and best opportunity for a national championship. But Moore said, “We feel gratitude for the opportunities we did have. And did these women ever maximize their opportunities.” The Warriors finished the season on a 14-game winning streak and cut down the nets after winning their fifth consecutive Golden State Athletic Conference title.
UCSB fans were left wondering how far the Gaucho basketball teams could have gone when the Big West called off the conference tournament in Anaheim (albeit without spectators), followed by the total scuttling of March Madness. One of the Gaucho men’s three seniors, Max Heidegger, was sidelined by an injury anyway; he certainly knows that nothing is guaranteed in sports. The women’s team had a pair of streak-shooting seniors, Coco Miller and Tal Sahar, who might have made the Gauchos an NCAA Cinderella.
In men’s volleyball, UCSB was shaping up as a serious national title contender when its season ended before a showdown against two-time defending champion Long Beach State.
Then there’s the Gaucho baseball team, which came home from a three-game sweep at Oregon State last week with a 13-2 record. With their wins over Cal and UCLA, the Gauchos were 5-0 against the Pac-12 Conference. Their pitching staff had a combined earned-run average of 1.84, tied for the NCAA’s best with defending champion Vanderbilt. Coach Andrew Checketts said they were beginning to remind him of the 2016 Gauchos, who rode pitching and defense into the College World Series.
“We went through the lion’s den up there,” Checketts said about the series in Corvallis, Oregon. “It was cold, miserable — all the traps for a Southern California team.”
Then the curtain slammed down on UCSB’s remaining 41 games, 23 of which would have been played at home. “It’s a challenging situation,” Checketts said. “A lot of work went into getting ready for the season — eight months of winding up the toy. It happened so fast, going from play to suspend to cancel in 48 hours.”
The NCAA — and the NAIA too, in Westmont’s case — is offering an extra year of eligibility to athletes in spring sports. But don’t expect the same Gaucho baseball team to be back next year. Anybody who earns his degree is unlikely to play as a graduate student, Checketts said, because college baseball scholarships cover only a fraction of the teams’ rosters. Several outstanding juniors, like starting pitcher Zach Torra (3-0, 0.36 ERA) and reliever Conner Roberts (4-1, 2.04), figure to be taken in the next Major League Draft.
“We’ve had the second most players drafted on the West Coast in the past five to seven years,” Checketts said. But this year’s team, which did not have super high expectations heading into the season, was just starting to attract scouts.
Despite the complications of having the 2020 season upended, Checketts does not question the necessity of it. “An abundance of caution is appropriate, given the threat of the pandemic,” he said. There is a welcome consequence: “I’m seeing my kids a lot more.”
He has three grade-school-age children. They see him coaching college players every weekend during the baseball season. “My son [William, 8] usually doesn’t get a lot of help from me,” Checketts said. “The last three days, I coached him at the park.”
HIGH SCHOOLERS HANG UP CLEATS: The coronavirus is also affecting prep sports. South Santa Barbara County schools fall under the jurisdiction of the CIF Southern Section, but that governing body has left all decision-making regarding cancellations and postponements to local schools and school districts.
“The CIF Southern Section is too large, both by number of schools and by geographic area, to have a one-size-fits-all response to the virus,” said CIF Southern Section commissioner Rob Wigod in a press release. “We believe that important decisions regarding school closures, cancelling/postponing athletic events, etc., should be made by local schools and school districts in concert with local and state health officials and guidance from the Centers for Disease Control.”
All athletic events and other “nonessential travel and events” for all students and staff in the Santa Barbara Unified School District and all schools in Santa Barbara County were cancelled on Thursday, March 12, through at least the remainder of March. The suspension of athletic activities may very well wipe out the remainder of the spring sports season.
The impact of this announcement is wide ranging, but most directly impacts sports that are currently in season. That includes baseball, softball, boys’ golf, boys’ tennis, boys’ and girls’ lacrosse, boys’ and girls’ swimming, boys’ and girls’ track and field, and boys’ volleyball.
“As of now, athletics is, in a sense, postponed. I don’t want to say the word ‘canceled,’” said Santa Barbara High athletic director Joe Chenoweth. “We hope at some point we can come back and finish out.”
The seniors who have worked most of their lives towards this six- to eight-week window to make their mark at the varsity level have been hit the hardest by the postponement. The timing couldn’t be any more devastating.
For Moses Dokes, a senior who transferred in from Denver East High School to play baseball at Santa Barbara High, his father’s alma mater, losing a chance to build on that legacy has been tough to swallow. He had to sit out 11 games to start his junior season due to transfer rules.
“It does suck, because this is my senior year and these are my brothers that I play with,” Dokes said. “These are my boys, and to find out that I can’t play with them anymore, it hits different. It hits home.”
The fragility of sports aspirations are at the back of every athlete’s mind. Whether it be an injury, a slump, or a global pandemic, a lifetime of hard work is always in the balance.
“It’s just killing me. It’s at this point in the season where we are 7-3 and we are figuring out whether we are good or really good,” said San Marcos High boys’ volleyball coach Roger Kuntz. “I’ve got seven seniors, and some of those seniors waited for their time last year as juniors for this opportunity to be the go-to guys and to be the starters and to be surrounded by a lot of experience.”