Shock, relief mix for college athletes after abrupt end to NCAA season

It’s hard to imagine any athlete never having heard, “Play every game like it’s your last.”

That phrase took on added meaning last week when the coronavirus pandemic shut down college sports. In light of the public health threat posed by COVID-19, the NCAA last Thursday canceled its Division I men’s and women’s basketball tournaments as well as all remaining winter and spring NCAA championships.

College seniors throughout the country took part in their final athletic event of the spring season, and perhaps their collegiate careers, and didn’t even know it.

“It kind of felt like the rug was tugged from beneath us,” Katie Hoeg of Mattituck, a senior attacker for the North Carolina women’s lacrosse team, said in a phone interview from Chapel Hill. “It’s heartbreaking.”

Hoeg said she held out hope that somehow she would be given another chance to play for the Tar Heels, the top-ranked Division I team in the country.

That opportunity presented itself soon enough, when the NCAA stated that athletes will be granted relief for a season of eligibility after having canceled the spring championships.

“Council leadership agreed that eligibility relief is appropriate for all Division I student-athletes who participated in spring sports,” the NCAA’s Division I Council Coordination Committee announced Friday. “Details of eligibility relief will be finalized at a later time. Additional issues with NCAA rules must be addressed, and appropriate governance bodies will work through those in the coming days and weeks.”

It was just what Hoeg and others had hoped for, a chance to close out their collegiate athletic careers on their terms.

Hoeg said she will return to play for North Carolina next year. The team captain will be able to add to her total as North Carolina’s all-time leading points scorer (264).

“I want to take that year, just because I’ve been working, this has been my dream, for so long,” she said. “I picked up the lacrosse stick since I was eight years old. To have a chance like that, I can’t put into words how happy I am.”

Hoeg said when she and her teammates heard from their coach about the NCAA’s eligibility relief statement “we were all overjoyed, honestly. Tears of joy just happened … I’ll never forget that moment.”

“It was a punch in the gut. It was very upsetting. Immediately, we all started crying.”

Courtney Troyan

She called the past week’s events “insane. This has definitely been the craziest week of my life.”

Developments moved so quickly last week that it was hard to keep up.

Joe Tardif of Cutchogue, a senior outfielder for the SUNY/Cortland baseball team, was with his teammates at practice last Thursday, filling out a food order for their spring trip to Lexington, S.C. Tardif recalled: “At the end of practice, the coach ripped it up and said: ‘We’re not going to be needing this. I’m sorry seniors, but the NCAA canceled the season.’ ”

Tardif, a physical education major who drove home Sunday, said his plans for next year are “kind of up in the air.” He did say, however, that he is leaning toward returning to Cortland to start graduate school, work on health credits and play ball again. “I got to play my last year,” he said.

With some athletes having jobs waiting for them, graduate school at other schools or financial issues, returning to play next season may not be possible, even with the NCAA’s consent.

Courtney Troyan of Riverhead, a senior defensive midfielder for Stony Brook University’s women’s lacrosse team, said she and other athletes assembled in the school’s arena to learn from the athletic director that their seasons had been suspended. Then, during the meeting, word spread through Twitter that the NCAA canceled it altogether.

“It was a punch in the gut,” Troyan said. “It was very upsetting. Immediately, we all started crying.”

Troyan said she was later relieved over the granting of another year of eligibility.

Will she return for a fifth year at Stony Brook?

“Honestly, this is a question that is going through my head a lot,” she said, calling it a 50-50 proposition.

Troyan said she’s in the process of applying to law schools. At the same time, she said: “It is an opportunity to play lacrosse for another year, which I’m not going to get back ever again … It’s like a whole different ballgame now.”

Audrey Hoeg of Mattituck (Katie’s cousin) is a senior lacrosse defender for William & Mary. She didn’t hesitate for a moment when asked if she will take advantage of the NCAA’s offer. “I definitely want to come back,” she said.

Every game, particularly for a senior, is precious.

“It’s a very weird feeling because [we’re] understanding that this is such a pandemic that needs to be stopped, but at the same time, it’s so devastating,” Audrey Hoeg said. “It would have been nice if we could have some warning in the beginning of the season. That just goes to show like you need to play every game like it’s your last one. This was so unforeseen that it was shocking.”

Audrey Hoeg had been looking forward to playing against Virginia, which her cousin, Riley Hoeg, plays for, later this month, but that’s not going to happen. At least Audrey Hoeg will be able to play another season with her sister, Claudia, a freshman goalie for William & Mary.

“It’s such a mix of emotions,” Audrey said. “It’s so strange trying to comprehend it all, trying to process it. We’re all getting through it together.”

Troyan said: “Our coach always told us, ‘Practice like it’s your last practice, always play like it’s your last game.’ Those words are so true now. It really brings it into reality … The last time you play, you never know when that’s going to be.”