It was an abrupt end to what was turning out to be a spring season like all of the others. The Austin College athletic department had baseball, softball, tennis, track and women’s water polo in full swing while other athletes were participating in their sports’ off-season workouts.
One weekend the Roos were on the diamond, the court or in the pool. By the next weekend, their seasons — and for the AC seniors, their careers — were effectively ended by the coronavirus pandemic.
“It definitely caught us by surprise. It took the college life away — being on campus and seeing your friends,” senior baseball player Justin Alphonse said. “”Everything you thought you’re working for comes to an end but you have to bounce back and come back stronger than before.”
The end was a frustrating one for dozens of seniors, who are competing at a level — Division III — where there are no scholarships to earn.
“We put in three-hour practices and 6 a.m. lifts. We were missing classes on Friday for tournaments,” said tennis player Katie Seibert, who is one of nine seniors across the men’s and women’s teams. “We put in quite a bit of time. We don’t get any scholarship for that. We were doing it because we love the sport and love the team.”
As the pandemic was in the process of increasing its impact, it was still business as usual for Austin College, even though the campus was in the middle of Spring Break. There were some warning signs from within the conference ranks and things quickly changed.
“The first real inkling we had was Trinity University had gone to online classes and was canceling all activities and so that meant our conference tournament would be cancelled,” Seibert said. “If Trinity was cancelled, we would end up being cancelled. We thought they might allows us to play one final match that we knew was the last match but that hope really didn’t last long.”
There was little which could be done as the biggest sports leagues to local youth organizations were making swift decisions with month-long effects.
“Whatever we can do for them is what I want to do,” assistant football coach Tre’ Stewart said. “I can’t imagine losing my senior season. I can’t imagine having that happen, especially as a Division III athlete since you know it’s most likely going to be the last time to strap it up and compete.”
The Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference had previously suspended all regular-season conference and non-conference competition starting on March 16 but then this past Monday officially cancelled all conference competition because of the pandemic.
“Given where we are as a country, with cases of the coronavirus continuing to escalate, this decision was the responsible and correct thing to do,” SCAC Commissioner Dwayne Hanberry said in a statement. “Above all else, our primary concern has to be ensuring, to the best of our abilities, the safety and well-being of our campuses and our student-athletes.
“Having said that, it doesn’t make it any less disappointing to see the spring season prematurely come to an end for our student-athletes and coaches. My heart truly goes out to all of them — especially our seniors. I hope they know how tough this decision was and how much their hard work and dedication was recognized during our discussions.”
With graduation right around the corner and with that the beginning of the rest of their lives, the fact that the SCAC and NCAA is in the process of granting an extra year of eligibility for seniors in spring sports wasn’t on their minds.
“We were all looking towards the next thing,” said Seibert, who is pre-med and had applied for the Fulbright Program — where is would have been living in South Korea for a year, another situation affected by coronavirus. “I don’t think any of us had thought about it.”
Alphonse has been a three-year starter for the Roos at first base and was off to the best start of his career. As a freshman he only got 13 at-bats, but then jumping into the starting lineup. He hit .273 with a .405 on-base percentage, four homers and 28 RBI before batting .277 with a .444 on-base percentage, a pair of home runs and 20 RBI.
In eight games so far this season, Alphonse was hitting .348 — third-best on the team — with a team-high three doubles and was second with seven RBI.
“This was my last ride. I gave it everything I had this off-season and you could see it was paying off,” said Alphonse, who will graduate with a degree in International Business.
Austin College went 7-2 before the season ended prematurely and the Roos had almost matched last spring, when they were 8-25 overall and 4-14 in conference action.
“This year was a good start for us, conference play was about to happen. We were really excited,” Alphonse said. “We had just put the tarp on the field and Coach said if I give you guys a text to pull the tarp off, that means we’re cancelled. It was like 20 minutes later. It hit me tat could be my last time on the field.”
Seibert has been a four-year contributor for the tennis program, serving as a co-captain multiple seasons, winning the Carroll Pickett Outstanding Women’s Tennis Player as a freshman and was an all-SCAC Tournament team pick in doubles play with Georgia Moore as a sophomore.
During her first three seasons Austin College had three straight third-place finishes in the SCAC Tournament and a top 20 regional ranking.
Last year the Roos went 10-5 overall and 4-1 in conference play and was 4-2 when the season was stopped with six matches remaining in the regular season. Seibert was 4-2 in doubles action and 3-3 in singles play.
“I’ve absolutely loved every minute of being a college athlete,” Seibert said. “There wasn’t a lot of closure. That part really stings.”
From a coaching standpoint, Stewart and the football team were scheduled to begin spring practice this week.
“It’s definitely an adjustment. Usually you get to see kids stand out that didn’t during the season. We’ll miss that opportunity to evaluate,” he said. “We were kinda riding the wave like everyone else. As we got closer we knew things would be different but you couldn’t plan for it. It could go into the summer. It could be a couple of months.”
Stewart has been an assistant coach for the Roos starting with the 2017 season. He is not that far removed from his playing days at AC — he was an all-SCAC selection as a defensive line with his senior season being the 2014 campaign. He was the defensive backs coach for two seasons at Illinois College before taking the same position at Austin College.
Under normal circumstances, these spring practices would have been a main step towards the season-opener — which is scheduled to be at Howard Payne on September 5 — but every aspect of athletics these days is anything but normal.
“It’s less contact than normal. We want to see when we’re able to be around our guys, when it’s safe for them to be around the other guys and for us to be safe around them,” Stewart said. “It’s uncharted water for the NCAA and we’re all trying to figure it out as we go.”