COVID-19 punched the sports world in the face 365 days ago.
Then, it was impervious. Undefeated against outside forces. For fans, it was a refuge, a way to pass time, a spectacle that becomes memories. For the athletes and coaches, sports were a way of life. The culmination of years honing their bodies and minds for the sake of competition.
A year ago, football was preparing for the spring Orange and Blue game. Gymnastics flirted with national championship expectations. Lacrosse, softball and baseball commanded their schedules. Men’s basketball was in Nashville, Tennessee, getting ready to start the SEC Conference Tournament.
But a year ago, the COVID-19 pandemic showed the fragility of sports. Within days, leagues suspended their activities, seasons were canceled and uncertainty consumed the air.
Opportunities for postseason success disappeared. Windows for national championships closed. Any regular-season momentum halted.
It took time and deliberation to return. As flawed as sports are during COVID-19, athletes are back competing, doing what they love. Coaches returned to digesting film and trying to outclass the opposition.
They’ve had a year to reflect on when their world stood still. Time to reflect on the past and focus on the present. Here are their thoughts on what happened March 11, 2020, and their reflections on the present.
College athletic careers are finite. The NCAA traditionally allows five calendar years to play four years of competition from the moment student-athletes step on campus.
But COVID-19 brought a temporary end to the student-athletes’ seasons. Some seasons ended with a win, others a loss. But none ended on the athletes’ and coaches’ terms.
Amelia Hundley, a student assistant coach, gymnastics:
“I remember that last workout, it was probably one of our best workouts that season and, we were finishing up and I saw Jenny (Rowland) on the phone outside of the office. And I kind of I don't know why, but I kind of just put it together. It didn't look like it was a fun conversation for her. She was a little upset and she had to come out and tell us and, it was heartbreaking.”
Jack Leftwich, senior pitcher, baseball:
“We were sitting in McKethan in the dugout, and we were crying because we thought that was for sure the last time we were gonna play there.”
Kendyl Lindaman, senior first baseman, softball:
“It was surreal. It was kind of one of those things where I just really didn't believe that it was actually happening. It kind of felt like a dream. You know it's not, it's never anything you could ever prepare for. We never saw it coming. So it was pretty surreal. And just talking with our teammates, everyone was so devastated. I remember coming here, the day after we found out that our season was over, and just sitting here in the media room. Just so many emotions, ups and downs, just people are getting ready to go home for quarantine. Just not knowing if you're going to have another season or be able to see all these people back again. So there was a lot of emotions, but I'm just glad that we were able to come out on the field this year and be able to play.”
Tim Walton, head coach, softball:
“I told my team before the game, in this very room that I'm in right now, ‘Listen. Just trust me. Don't take anything for granted. Leave everything you thought on the field out there tonight because you never know when an opportunity is going to be taken away from you out of your control.’ I don't know if that's a great coaching moment for me to be honest with you. I don't know if that's something I shouldn't say, I just, I guess, really wanted to have that conversation with players….I had a meeting with all of our head coaches and Scott Stricklin, and so I just wanted to stress the importance of playing softball and playing it hard. And don't take anything for granted because you don't know and, obviously, we know that you know the outcome of that season.”
Amanda O’Leary, head coach, lacrosse:
“When the season shut down last year, it was devastating to all of us across the board. When you were here one day practicing, and then the next day everybody is picking up their equipment from the locker room and heading home. It was just such a feeling of loss. There was a void, for all of us, I think. Something where we didn't get to complete….I think that's really tough when you have a mission or a goal in your mind, and all of a sudden, that's taken away from you. It's a really tough thing to deal with.”
Student-athletes don’t often find themselves with more time than they know what to do with. They meticulously balance practice, games and classwork. But COVID-19 paused their lives. Practice, as they knew it, changed. They no longer had teammates and coaches at an arm’s reach. Drills and work needed to adjust to function during isolation.
John Hevesy, offensive line coach, football:
“There’s a lot of things that no one knew what to do and how to handle it because no one’s ever went through it. So, it became a thing of, as a staff, everybody constantly communicating what we’re doing. I think at one point, I said ‘Hey, we’re just going to do a little bit of a challenge this day,’put them on Zoom or put them on a text message and said ‘Listen, you’ve got to send in a video jump roping. Let’s do a jump rope contest. Send your video in’. I probably got seven text messages back, ‘Coach, I don’t have a jump rope.’ I didn’t care if it was a jump rope. I think Brett Heggie sent a video of him with an extension cord, doing jump ropes.”
“It was tough. Again, you know, I went back home and there was a lot of lockdowns. Everything was closed, so for a while, I had to just set it (softball) aside just to make sure that I was safe, my family was safe and then everyone out there was safe as well so I had to put it aside for a while. I made sure I kept my body in shape though. I did workouts at home. But yeah, I had to set softball aside for quite a few weeks, but I was able to eventually get back into the facility … going in at times when no one was there just to make sure that everything was okay.”
“I think when the season was cut short, it was really hard to regroup. I mean, the whole country was going through a pandemic. We were more concerned about our players and their health and their family's health and making sure that they were safe. Before we could even begin to think about lacrosse”
365 days, 8,760 hours, 525,600 minutes. That’s how much time student-athletes and coaches had to reflect on how COVID-19 impacted their athletic careers. Though injuries can smite a season, losing out on a final year because of a pandemic was unprecedented.
The NCAA gave athletes another year of eligibility as a result of last spring’s cancellations. Many athletes chose to return for another chance at glory. One last chance to end on their terms. One more opportunity to make sure their college career isn’t taken for granted.
Tre Mann, sophomore guard, men’s basketball:
“I'm just grateful for that opportunity to play again. I mean, we're in the same situation last year where we thought we were playing and they canceled it the same day. So we got a game under our belt. All we can do is take it one game at a time because you never know. I'm just grateful that I got to play today. I'm just taking it one game at a time and praying that we finish the season.”
Kevin O’Sullivan, head coach, baseball:
“I think there’s a little bit of anxiousness. I think there’s a lot of things that every individual has gone through. Their own process in how they’ve been able to deal with the COVID thing. And I think being away from the game for very long, you may have lost a feel for A, having success or B, having failure. I think we’re still a work in progress to be honest with you. I think there’s a lot of things that still have to get worked through mentally to get to a point where we feel really good. I think a lot of that has to do with how the world changed a year ago. I think, once this thing gets put behind us, across the board, I think in any walk of life, things are going to improve.”
Kirby McMullen, graduate senior third baseman, baseball:
“I try to go out there every single game and try to give it as much effort as any other game. But knowing that last year, our season was cut short, it means a lot being on the field right now. We’re definitely taking it. We’re really enjoying it and we’re all happy to be back out there and win some games. We’re excited for SEC to start soon.”
Cheyenne Lindsey, junior outfielder, softball:
“I just feel like playing now, I can't take credit for the season in there last year. It was going to be my first full season actually being able to play. And then it was cut short. So now, I'm just taking every game like it’s my last because I've had that experience, and I just don't take it for granted.”
“I think this fall we were so excited to get back together because it had been so long since we had seen each other. Zoom is wonderful, but to be able to see each other face to face, it's just a different feel. So we just got back to it in the fall and tried to create an opportunity again that we lost last spring and start where we ended.”
Hunter Barco, sophomore pitcher, baseball:
“We’re lucky to be playing baseball. When the season got canceled last year, everyone was just devastated. We worked hard for the last year to get back here, getting to play in the new stadium and just getting to be around each other again. We’re all just thankful for the opportunity to play.”
“I have no regrets over that season. I gave it everything I had. I think our team gave it everything we had, and we have a lot of fun and a lot of memories along the way. That's my whole kind of perspective on my whole career. I did everything I could, in my power, and the rest was in God's hands, however you want to say it. But it was nice because I had the support of my team, of my coaches, of my class.”
Christian Ortega, Zachary Hubery, Ryan Haley, Declan Walsh, Rachel Slay, Noah Ram and Sara Kate Dyson contributed to this story.
Noah is a third year journalism-sports and media student from Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. He has been with The Alligator since Spring 2019 and has covered men’s and women’s tennis, gymnastics and volleyball. When he isn’t on his beat, Noah is usually sadden over his beloved South Florida sports teams, such as the Heat and Dolphins.
Ryan Haley, a UF journalism senior with a sports & media specialization from Jacksonville, Florida, is Summer 2022's Engagement Managing Editor. He grew up playing a bunch of different sports before settling on golf, following Rory McIlroy and all Philadelphia sports teams. He also loves all things fiction, reading, watching shows and movies and talking about whatever current story or character is in his head.