Student-athletes return home mid-competition following cancellation of NCAA Championships

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Eph alpine skier Maddie Dekko ’21, ranked second in the Eastern Division this winter, returned after the NCAA Championships announced their cancellation.

A day after the College announced its mid-semester move to remote learning on March 13, the NCAA issued a cancellation of all winter season NCAA Championships, squashing the postseason hopes of Div. III teams around the country. For many of the eight Eph teams that qualified for this year’s national championships – men’s and women’s track and field, Alpine and Nordic skiing, women’s basketball, wrestling and men’s and women’s swimming and diving – this decision came only hours before their next competition.

Although spring season athletics had already been suspended by March 11, winter season teams nearing the end of their post-season hoped to finish competing before the situation worsened significantly.

On March 10, 27 members of the men’s and women’s track and field teams began a two-day bus journey to Winston Salem, N.C. for their Nationals meet. The team, which was originally set to travel by plane, took the longer bus ride in order to avoid exposure to the virus in airports. Coaches also prepared to institute safety measures while at the tournament, turning down invitations to an all-participant banquet and only consuming take-out food.

Team members received news of the College’s announcement while still on the bus, but nonetheless planned on competing in the coming days. As they processed the news, Ella Dunn ’21 said, they tried to remain focused on the task at hand. “I believe for the first bit of time everyone was in shock that it was actually a reality now,” she said. “But on the other hand, being away from it all almost made it feel unreal – I also think some people tried to separate from reality for a moment and just focus on competing, but with everything going on, this was easier said than done.”

The next day, the team heard that Nationals would not continue and that they would need to return to campus immediately. “By the time the NCAA meet was cancelled, so much had already happened that the original shock was no longer there,” Dunn said. “In this moment, the women’s track team just surrounded together, giving each other hugs and telling each other it will be alright.”

Upon returning to campus on Friday after another long bus ride, the athletes were met by their teammates who had not competed at Nationals in a show of support. This was, Dunn said, “a bittersweet return,” especially for the team’s seniors.

While Dunn and her teammates drove up to Williamstown, two members of the Eph ski teams tried to find flights back from Montana where they were competing. Maddie Dekko ’21, who represented the Alpine team, flew out west the weekend before to begin preparing for a tough Nationals competition. Dekko noted that even though she and her coaches had received word of other NCAA cancellations, she was surprised that the decision was immediately implemented in the ski tournament.

“Skiing, as a competition, is completely different than collegiate basketball in terms of proximity to others and spectators,” Dekko told the Record in an email.

Dekko noted that it was an especially hard decision to come to terms with, given that it was her first Nationals appearance. To Dekko, who ranked second in the Eastern Division this winter, she said “It felt like an opportunity that was 3 years in the works.”

Nordic skier Isaac Freitas-Eagan ’22 found out about the NCAA’s decision during a brief window between his two events on that Thursday. After his coaches received a call from Athletic Director Lisa Melendy, Freitas-Eagan said, they began to formulate travel plans, eventually flying back to Albany on Saturday, March 14. “I was pretty sad, sad for the missed time with the team, sad for the missed opportunity to compete,” he said.

Women’s basketball finished their landmark season on a bittersweet note, following the cancellation of their March 12 Sweet Sixteen match-up against Tufts. This marked the first Nationals appearance since 2015 for the women, who were half-way to Tufts’ Medford campus when they heard the news.

Head coach Pat Manning got a call with the news as the bus neared Greenfield, with only a few hours left before the scheduled tip-off. Emotions ran high after hearing the news, co-captain Emily Peckham ’20 said, and some teammates started to cry.

“In the grand scheme of things, keeping everyone safe and healthy is the number one priority,” Manning said. “But from a basketball perspective, it was tough, especially for our seniors who were having the best season they’d ever had.”

For Peckham specifically, who spent much of her senior season sidelined following an ACL injury in December, the news was especially difficult. “I had already had my senior season cut short, but having it taken away again was really painful,” she said.

Manning noted that the team had also dedicated their Sweet Sixteen game to Eph teams that compete in the spring and were unable to begin their 2020 season.

Before returning to campus, the team made a quick pit stop at the Friendly’s in Greenfield for some ice cream, a favorite team snack, to celebrate the end of their season. Once back on campus, the team gathered to cut down a net in their home court, a tradition usually carried out after a win in the Regionals round of NCAAs. “I think it helped us to find some closure,” Manning said. The next night, the women held a team dinner to properly send-off their three seniors.

“The NCAA did make the right call ultimately,” Manning said. “And by Friday, it was easier to accept… By the time it settled in, people were just really grateful for the season we did have.”