The news broke as Princeton baseball was suiting up for practice. It was March 11, 3 p.m. on the nose, seven games into the team’s season — and the Ivy League was cancelling all its spring athletic competitions.
On March 12, 4:18 p.m., the NCAA tweeted that all remaining winter sporting events — national championships included — were cancelled. Women’s basketball, women’s hockey, and six wrestlers unpacked their suitcases; junior Sam Ellis of men’s track and field found himself in Albuquerque, N.M., with no mile to run.
The life of a Division I athlete is one of rigor and routine. Preseason. Competition season. Postseason. Repeat. The goal of a Division I athlete is to be game ready, race ready, match ready by the time the season’s first whistle blows — and to be even better by the time the season’s last buzzer sounds. Two tweets, in 25 hours and 18 minutes, upended the rhythms, the lifestyles, and the dreams of 20 teams.
Some spring sports with year-long offseasons have seen their competition clocks pushed back 12 months, which leaves not only athletes, but strength and conditioning coaches like Matt Fleekop, drastically rethinking training regimes.
“No one is winning a National Championship tomorrow,” said Fleekop. “This is a great opportunity for coaches to talk about the process.”
“It’s my responsibility to meet everyone where they stand and give them everything they need to be successful during this time,” he added. “It’s a very difficult situation for many, and we all need to understand that.”
As for how he’s coming to terms with the unprecedented situation, Fleekop cited the words of women’s ice hockey head coach Cara Morey.
“She once said, ‘There are two things we can control: our effort and attitude,’” said Fleekop. “There’s no better time than right now to hear that message.”
In the days following the NCAA and Ivy League’s announcements, Morey emphasized time and again to her team that hypotheticals were useless. Her players could not control the existence of COVID-19, could not control its early end to their season, and would never be able to find out precisely how far their team could have gone. What they could control? Their reaction.
Despite the frustration, the anguish, the tears, Princeton’s teams have done their utmost to make that reaction a positive one.
“Our 50-plus person person team felt so united, each teammate having one another’s back,” said senior women’s openweight rower Amanda Cooleen. “Our coaching staff was and continues to be supportive throughout the entire process to ensure that each one of us is doing well.”
Men’s rugby coach Richard Lopacki held a meeting with his entire team after their season was cancelled to celebrate the senior class and stress that, if anything, this adversity will only forge a stronger bond of brotherhood between current and past players.
On Princeton’s athletic fields and in its facilities, positivity and hope for tomorrow and the next season in large part abound. But there’s one group without an athletic tomorrow. A small minority of seniors will choose — and be lucky enough to be chosen — to play professional sports.
The majority of seniors, however, saw two tweets end their lifelong careers. Months before they’d expected it, 205 senior college athletes realized they were now former college athletes.
“Honestly,” said Cooleen, “I never imagined that the end of my 15-plus year athletic career would come to an end so abruptly. I went from being two weeks away from the start of my senior season to feeling simply hopeless.”
“I think I am just trying to go with the flow,” said senior women’s hockey goalie Stephanie Neatby. “I’m very upset at what has happened — as a senior, it plainly just sucks. However, it sucks for everyone at the same time. And the only thing we can do is follow the guidelines for this virus and hope it clears as soon as possible.”
“I think at first I actually had a really hard time embracing all of this,” said senior softball pitcher Caroline Taber. “I was really angry, like furious, at how things turned out, mostly because of everything my class was losing. We had an Ivy Championship team this year, you could just feel it in the air at our practices, you know? We had the best record pre-spring break that I remember ever having in my time at Princeton.”
Taber said what helped her above all was looking ahead to her future, giving herself a sense of things to come and to anticipate.
Senior baseball pitcher Conor Nolan spoke about the difficulties of losing his routine.
“It’s definitely hard sometimes with the amount of freedom we have being off-campus,” he said. Adjusting to his newfound circumstances involved shifting from a rigid mindset to one that’s more flexible and ready to adapt to a life that’s constantly changing. He hopes that this situation puts the teams time together next year into perspective and allows them to appreciate being around each other even more.
Cooleen reflected on losing her regular season and the lack of closure seniors faced.
“I will miss the excitement that comes in the spring when we are able to put all our training to work,” she said. “I will miss our little traditions that make our team so unique. I will miss lining up at the start line with four or eight other women in the boat, unsure of what the outcome of the race will be, but knowing that each teammate is about to give it their all and feel the same excruciating pain for the entirety of the 2000m to get closer to our end goals.”
Cooleen, however, is thankful for everything she has experienced and looks forward to seeing the future classes shine.
“Something that has helped us all is to accept this decision and think about how to move forward from here,” she said. “Although this isn’t the end the senior class had hoped for, we hope that it fuels the desire for our other teammates to push even harder to achieve the goals that we were unable to accomplish this year,” she said.
Kenzie Ebel, a senior forward on the women’s ice hockey team, hadn’t been able to play since sustaining an injury in November. She commented on the difference in perspective that trial might have given her.
“I went through coping with the end of my season in January, when I realized the true extent of my injury,” she said. “In that moment, I made sure to be grateful for every opportunity I was given, because it can be stripped from you at any moment. This isn’t to say that it is any easier for me. When it all ended again, I felt all these emotions of losing the season for a second time.”
She added, “In both cases, something I worked so hard for, for so long, was ripped from me in a split second with no control on my end. It’s heartbreaking.”
Every senior interviewed mentioned missing the structure of life on-campus and the difficulties and efforts of finding a new routine that works for them. All of them were saddened by the memories they wouldn’t get to experience. All of them want their teams to come back grateful and hungry. It seems like they’re in luck.
Sarah Fillier, sophomore captain and returning forward for women’s ice hockey, said that this experience will motivate her to take advantage of and appreciate her collegiate career all the more.
“I wish I was more in the moment for games and practices and all that time I had on the ice, [in the] gym and locker room with the team, coaches, and staff,” she said. “I don’t think it has to be said that everyone will come into next season with a lot more gratitude for the program and current team, but especially for being a student-athlete at Princeton.”
For those rising seniors, juniors, and sophomores who have more seasons ahead of them, a new mindset has emerged: this upcoming season is not just for them, but for the seniors who never had the chance to finish what was rightfully theirs. COVID-19 has forced people apart; yet, it hasn’t tarnished the bonds that make a group of people a team.
Every sport begins with a long offseason of training and preparation. Future days in the weight room, on the field, in the pool, on the track, and on the mat will all lead up to one goal: returning to live competition and playing for those who, next year, will stand on the sidelines.
“I want my team to win Ivies next year,“ said Taber. “They deserve an Ivy Championship, and to know that the hours of work they put in this year are not for nothing. I'm so excited to see how they take the field by storm.”
Note: A day after this story’s publication, Athletic Director Mollie Marcoux announced that the University would not allow student-athletes who withdrew this spring to preserve an extra year of Princeton athletic eligibility.