COVID-19 has had several impacts on the world in recent weeks, especially in sports.
Things developed quickly. During Austin Peay baseball’s game against Western Illinois on Wednesday, March 11, the first major effects of the coronavirus outbreak developed in the postponement of an NBA game – and season – between first pitch and final out.
Since then, all major sports – professional, collegiate and amateur – have been put on hold. That stands for Clarksville as well.
With the recent cancellation of the Ohio Valley Conference 2020 spring sports, the Austin Peay athletics department has had to deal with the fallout of lost seasons for sports including baseball, softball and track.
Several Governors officials joined a conference call to discuss the matters with local media.
Athletic Director Gerald Harrison
“This has been a tough time for our country, our state, our institution and our athletics department,” Harrison said. “However, I truly believe that we’re stronger together and we will obviously move forward and get past this time. We are faced with numerous challenges with our current situation.
“Obviously, any time you cancel a sports season, that leads to a lot of questions with the NCAA coming to a decision on eligibility and what we’re going to do with that, potential financial harm with NCAA distribution and distribution of revenue. But the challenges that we have and the things are that are going on, our primary job is to support and nurture our student athletes.”
The university has shut down all facilities aside from athletic training, who is operating on an appointment-only basis. Some student-athletes are living on campus, but Harrison noted that most have returned to their homes.
As for the athletic department, they’re still working daily despite the lack of games, be it from home or in the office.
Naturally, Harrison and the department were saddened to learn that their seasons were shortened and, eventually, over.
“It was one that really was kind of devastating, honestly,” Harrison said. “There’s a lot of times that you anticipate problems that may come or troubles they may have, but this was one that spread pretty quickly. I had gotten wind from some counterparts in the ACC and SEC that something major was coming down the pipe, but you just don’t believe it when it happens, until you hear it.
“Once the decision was made and we talked as a staff, we had a plan put together at Austin Peay prior to the official announcement from the OVC to be prepared, but when that decision came through, it was devastating to have to tell coaches who then had to turn and tell their student athletes that their seasons were suspended at that point in time, or over.”
Neither Austin Peay nor the OVC have been given enough guidance to fully prepare a long-term strategy to cope with what comes next. Harrison noted that they are awaiting direction from the NCAA on how to act.
Perhaps the most significant long-term concern for the program will be dealing with the NCAA-approved extra years of eligibility for spring season seniors, which could eventually become extra years for freshmen, sophomores and juniors as well. Once again, they must await instruction from the conference and association.
The pandemic has also affected fall and winter sports.
“It’s a major recruiting time for (football and basketball),” Harrison said. “There are no AAU games going on… This was a major recruiting period. We called the coaches in basketball off the roads. In football they would be in spring recruiting starting here in April, they’re not going to be able to do that. That changes your evaluation, being able to see and evaluate student-athletes in person. Recruiting is done through phones and FaceTime and things like that. It does pose a challenge.”
To compensate, Harrison believes that there will be adjustments made to the recruiting calendar, be it signing day extensions or changes to the dead period. Additionally, the summer football dead period may be waived since all spring practices and spring games have been canceled.
It is also uncertain that the college football season will begin on time. The Governors are scheduled to participate in the annual Guardian Credit Union FCS Kickoff Game against Central Arkansas on Saturday, August 29 in Montgomery, Ala.
Fortunately, no APSU athletes have tested positive for COVID-19. However, there are “three or four” athletes that are unable to get offseason surgeries as planned due to hospitals dedicating resources to coronavirus.
For the time being, the athletes are being told to focus primarily on academics while still staying in shape.
Baseball coach Travis Janssen and outfielder Garrett Spain
After games on back-to-back days, the Governors planned to practice on Thursday but hit the field early to beat the threat of rain. Afterwards, they went into the weight room followed by a team meal at Johnny’s Big Burger.
“From that time that we went to Johnny’s, social media started taking off,” Janssen said. “First the SEC announced that they were postponing, then March Madness canceled, then the College World Series canceled, so all those things unfolded in front of our eyes on social media.
“When we had (our) 5 p.m. meeting, I don’t think there was a whole lot of shock from our players. There wasn’t a whole lot of disbelief. The emotions ranged from humor, quite honestly, to tears in guys eyes. I think it’s probably a pretty natural reaction when something hits you that you aren’t able to process.”
Spain, a sophomore, said that nobody on the team was shocked by the announcement. The disappointment was there, but by the time they received word, they expected the season to be halted. Naturally, the seniors have been the most vocal.
“Everybody’s wishing they could be back, maybe not taking everything they did for granted and enjoying what we had a little bit more,” Spain said. “Obviously for those seniors that either that was their last game they’re ever going to play or they’ll have one last shot… It’s a tough place to be, especially when you’ve already graduated but they’re definitely reaching out, it’s an awesome group of guys. They’re for sure missing being with the guys.”
Janssen noted that the only other time he’s witnessed anything similar to the events of the past month was 9/11 and the ensuing week.
While the players and coaches are spread out across the country, they remain in contact daily through Zoom meetings and phone calls. The staff isn’t worried about accountability due to the high character of the players.
At this point, the biggest concern for the team is player development and summer ball placement. With minimal playing time to use as a factor in league placement, Governors players will have to rely on their coaches’ relationships with programs.
Additionally, players hoping for a chance to showcase their skills to professional scouts have lost that opportunity – for now. However, Spain, who left a strong impression during his freshman season, is not letting that stop him.
“This only gives you more time to get stronger and faster,” he said. “Yes it does suck, but you can’t make excuses because you aren’t playing games. Everybody else is going through it, it’s not just me. There’s however many else sophomores and freshmen and juniors looking at the draft the same way I am. You just have to take advantage of what you have and come back stronger.”
As of now, the team is unsure how many of their seniors will exercise an extra year of eligibility.
Softball coach Kassie Stanfill and utility player Emily Moore
The Governors’ softball team had a much different experience learning about the season cancellation than the baseball team.
They also practiced on Thursday, but were not afforded downtime during the news developments. Instead they were split up while rotating through hitting groups and the weight room.
“We weren’t really connected to social media, didn’t know what was going on with the outside world with the cancellation of the championships and all that,” Moore said. “Once the hitting groups and the lifting session were done, we all met back in the locker room for a team meeting and it was still kind of emotional for me.
“That’s when we found out that our season was coming to an end and right when Coach K told us that, there was just all sorts of emotions throughout the locker room. Every single person in there was crying, teammates that I’ve never seen cry before, they had tears in their eyes.”
The team was 11-12 but had won six of its last eight games.
As expected, the seniors took the news the hardest from their second-year head coach.
“There are a lot of emotions when you have every single senior crying, holding one another,” Stanfill said. “You have their teammates trying to comfort them in a way like, ‘Hey, I know this sucks, but we can get through it.’ That was very hard for multiple reasons. We had five seniors coming in, they’re all getting their playing time with whatever their role looked like. It was a big year for them.
“For them, I think that’s what hurt so much from the jump, that just being smashed away. Once the emotions settled down a little bit, you realize it’s not just you. Everyone in America is going through this.”
From there, it was a matter of figuring out how the team is going to survive, especially with the potential of the seniors receiving an extra year. Stanfill said that she doesn’t want her seniors to buy into an extra year but regret it when presented with challenges, but she trusts they’ll figure out what’s in their best interest.
As for Moore, a senior, she feels that if she were presented with the decision now, she would take the extra year and work on getting her master’s degree despite currently being in the process of applying for internships and jobs with the expectation of graduating in May.
Track and field coach Valerie Brown and multi-event athlete Lennex Walker
After winning the indoor championship, the women’s track and field team had high expectations for themselves during the outdoor season with an opportunity to win their first ever outdoor title.
The team typically goes on a spring break trip together, but after the title, Brown allowed the players to take trips of their own to unwind. Unfortunately, it was at this time that the grave news regarding their season broke.
“In hindsight I wish we were all together on the spring break trip with the team to address it for those girls, what we see as a tough moment,” Brown said. “Just right now, they’re trying to still process everything because this is a time where we’d still be competing and try to accept some things that are out of our control.”
Walker was home with her family in Chattanooga at the time but has since returned to Clarksville. While she’s upset that the season is lost, she’s thankful for the free time in which her life is not consumed by the sport, allowing her to put more into her day-to-day life while picking up new hobbies.
Brown and the team seemed as mentally prepared as they could be for the COVID-19 shortened season.
“All year we’ve talked about change and adversity and how we respond as a team, so this is a very good group and they’ve responded very well throughout the year to unexpected changes and things that are out of our control,” Brown said. “So right now it’s a matter of, we talk about athletics being the doorway to college and we are preparing these ladies for life. Part of being prepared for life is responding to things that are out of our control like this situation.
“We’re just trying to keep them focused academically and take it day-by-day as see how things are presented by the NCAA with our seniors on how we move forward as a team for next year or even later this season.”