FAYETTEVILLE — Because they were actually warming up in Albuquerque, N.M. for their NCAA Indoor Championship meet, the University of Arkansas’ men’s and women’s indoor track teams likely took the immediately hardest jolt in the Razorbacks program the day all collegiate sports went dark.
The national emergency trying to curb spreading the worldwide coronavirus pandemic has canceled or postponed virtually all activities attracting sizable crowds.
“Yeah, it was a stomach punch,” Arkansas Men’s Track Coach Chris Bucknam said. “There’s no question about that.”
Bucknam, Lance Harter, the women’s track coach, Baseball Coach Dave Van Horn and Women’s Softball Coach Courtney Deifel were made media available on a Wednesday teleconference discussing events since last Thursday’s cancellation of all March conducted NCAA championship events for March which by Friday evolved to cancelling all NCAA championship events for May and June finally to canceling all intercollegiate sports competition for the remainder of 2020 spring semester and through June.
The NCAA Indoor meets, with Harter’s women the defending national champions coming in off a SEC Indoor title, and Bucknam’s men coming off a SEC Indoor championship with their best team in years, were scheduled for last Friday and Saturday.
Harter recalled the impact
“The initial aspect of being on the track at the national championships surrounded by the competition of those that qualified, and then all of a sudden just be told on a Thursday afternoon, ‘Pack up and leave, the season is over,” Harter said. “That was one initial reaction. Then the second was the reality as you’re flying back to Fayetteville going, ‘Oh my gosh. We lost the indoor championships. We also lost the entire outdoor season.’”
While not in national championship competition, Van Horn’s 11-5 nationally 14th-ranked Razorbacks were scheduled to open their SEC season last Friday through Sunday at Mississippi State.
Deifel’s nationally 20th-ranked Razorbacks, 18-6, 1-2 in the SEC after a series at Alabama, was scheduled to host Georgia in a 3-game SEC series last Friday through Sunday.
Van Horn said “behind closed doors” he and his staff had presumed “we’re done” when told Thursday not to fly to Starkville, Miss. but it made it no easier addressing the team Friday with the news the season was suspended through April 30 which eventually became totally canceled.
“Just the looks on their faces were just devastating, really,” Van Horn said. “Normally I stand up when I talk to the team. I sat down because it was tough.”
Deifel’s team took it hard, too.
“There’s obviously a ton of emotion involved,” Deifel said. “We’ve just tried to help them and support them through that and make sure we have a good amount of perspective just looking at how other sports were. Just making sure we’re keeping perspective and making sure they know that we’re doing our small part in the big picture and helping us to move forward.”
All four coaches said their teams certainly realize this national emergency is way beyond bigger than themselves and their sport. And all four thanked Arkansas Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek and SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey for their decisions, support and communications.
But their athletes and their sport still remain hugely important starting with what comes next.
Van Horn hates that surely Major League draft bound juniors Heston Kjerstad, Casey Martin and Casey Opitz have played their last Razorbacks game and that Kjerstad’s historic start, .448 batting average and 6 home runs and 20 RBI in just 67 at bats, can’t conclude historically for the long haul come June.
“We won’t get to see that guy swing the bat in a Razorback uniform again and what a pleasure that was,” Van Horn said. “That kid had six home runs and 20 RBIs already. I think he might have broken the home run record before it was over with. I think he’d hit mid-20s to 30 home runs, I truly do.”
While likely losing those juniors, it appears Van Horn will have senior first baseman Cole Austin back for 2021 and his current underclassmen for an extra year’s eligibility.
The NCAA is discussing to implement restoring athletes in all spring sports like outdoor track, baseball, softball, golf, tennis, etc. an additional season since this year’s sports were either cut short or not started.
Bucknam said athletes in indoor track, basketball, gymnastics, and swimming and diving should be granted an extra year for their sport since they were denied to compete for their national championships.
“You go through the grind of the season, everything is tilted toward getting to the NCAA Championship,” Bucknam said of the aforementioned sports. “That’s in our DNA. That’s how we do it in all of our sports. You do the grind and you battle and fight and then you take that away and you can’t compete at the highest level. That’s why I don’t think it should be just spring sports talk, I think it should be winter sports as well.”
All four coaches said there will be financial and roster issues that must be dealt with including some NCAA schools possibly voting against adding the extra eligibility because of costs.
Those are all issues to be dealt with long term.
Bucknam cites a bigger one short term. Most athletes have gone to their homes with UA on campus classes padlocked shut because of the coronavirus threat but the spring semester academically continues online.
“My biggest thing is I just want our guys to finish the semester academically.” Bucknam said. “That’s our first priority. We’ll figure the rest of the stuff out, but that’s what I’m concerned about.”