Written by Emilee Erickson, Caleb Leming, Taylor Ostler, Ben Winters and Aaron Fitzner with photography by Preston Crawley, Hannah Miner, Addie Blacker and BYU Photo. Compiled and created by Aaron Fitzner.
There was an eerie feeling when the sports world woke up on March 12. The NBA was the first North American professional league to suspend its season, and as the day wore on, more dominoes fell and every professional sport was suspended. Then the real heartbreaker came — the NCAA canceled all winter and spring sports that were still in session, including championship tournaments.
“All within two hours I found out my career was over,” senior gymnast Shannon Evans said. She couldn’t believe it.
SENIOR SOFTBALL PLAYERS Emilee Erickson and Rylee Jensen-McFarland were with their team in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, preparing for an invitational when they received news that their tournament was canceled and their team would be boarding the first available flight back to Utah. They then heard the cancelation announcement, marking what seemed like the end of their softball careers.
Erickson remembered when coach Gordon Eakin delivered the heart-breaking news to the team. She recalled coach Eakin glancing around the room but stopping mid-speech once they locked eyes. She remembered his voice cracking with emotion as he said, “I just looked at Emilee. I shouldn’t have done that.” Erickson couldn’t hold back the tears.
“I’ve been playing for 17 years. When you put so much blood, sweat and tears into your craft, your heart is going to break when it’s taken away from you,” Erickson said.
The two seniors, like most seniors at BYU, had never received such sorrow from the sport they love. They were both in denial thinking there was no tournament, no practice and no more team bonding.
Some 1,700 miles away in Provo, seniors on the No. 17 men’s basketball team heard the same news.
Senior men’s basketball forward Dalton Nixon said heartbreak, shock and tears filled the locker room even before coach Mark Pope opened his mouth to tell his team that there would be no tournament and that, for the seniors, their careers at BYU had ended.
“I have been dreaming about playing in March Madness and making a run for BYU ever since I was a young kid, the hardest part is not being able to live my dream,” Nixon said.
Senior Jake Toolson, who transferred from UVU to play one final NCAA season, said there isn’t anything that someone could say to console the depth of sorrow the senior athletes are feeling. Gameday traditions, celebrations, March Madness, all of it gone in a blink of an eye, and there was nothing they could do about it. His teammate and fellow senior Zac Seljaas echoed his words and emotions.
“All of our season, what we are trying to achieve came to that point, and it was just taken away. We don’t get another chance to fight and go out there. You just don’t know what to do,” Seljaas said.
For the seven seniors on the men’s basketball team, the triumph of being on the same court one final time never truly came.
NO. 1 MEN’S VOLLEYBALL was overwhelmed by their emotions after hearing the news. Senior Wil Stanley was with his teammates in the Smithfield House as they tried to comprehend what coach Shawn Olmstead had just officially confirmed to them in a team meeting: the season was over.
“There was not one person that had a dry eye in that room. There were guys that hadn’t played all season that were emotional because they knew how special that season was,” Stanley said.
Stanley’s teammate and fellow senior Andrew Lincoln was filled with such immense frustration that he eventually had to let it all out. Lincoln said he grabbed a volleyball and started hitting it at his teammates with all his strength. The team played on the court for an hour in the dark with no shoes just to fully let go of their emotions.
There is no way that the 2019-20 season can be given back to the senior athletes. Men’s basketball walked away from a ranked season and a berth in the March Madness tournament for the first time since 2015, men’s volleyball gave up a No. 1 national ranking and No. 16 gymnastics was forced to fold on a national ranking and potential conference championship.
BYU SENIOR GYMNAST Evans had just flown to Washington to see her husband, Ryan, compete in his final dive meet. Just before her flight back to Provo, Evans sent a good luck text to a UCLA gymnast who would soon be participating in her senior night meet. The reply she got was stunning: there would be no senior night. Shocked, she boarded her plane.
When the flight landed, Evans said her phone blew up with messages from teammates, and it all happened like rapid fire. First, no spectators were allowed at the meets. Then, no family members were allowed. Minutes later, her senior night was canceled, followed by regionals not long after that. The sequence of falling dominoes came with the announcement of spring sports being canceled. Evans realized the season was officially over.
“Nothing is ever going to replace having a senior night or having a senior conference or going to regionals with your team one last time and hopefully making it to nationals. There is nothing that will ever replace that, and it was just taken away,” Evans said.
She said she feels lost — at a loss for words, and perhaps a bit lost in life. While she still has life planned after her career at BYU ends, gymnastics is what she dedicated her life to. Not only does she have to walk away from the sport, but she also has to do it without closure, having no control over when her final performance took place.
DISTANCE RUNNER Talem Franco and his teammates — Jake Heslington, Garrett Marsing and Matt Owens — were eating at a restaurant in Albuquerque, New Mexico, before the NCAA Indoor Championships. Six opponents had dropped out of the mile event, and they assumed it was because of COVID-19. They joked about how they would automatically advance into the finals, but later they found out all NCAA track events were canceled. Their mood turned somber and they realized this meant they couldn’t compete in any sanctioned NCAA event, including the NCAA indoor championships that were set to begin that weekend.
Instead of packing their bags to compete for national championships, the team packed their suitcases for a flight that would depart around the same time as their events. Seniors Franco and Heslington knew they had likely ran as collegiate athletes for the last time. With so many things happening that were out of their control, the seniors, and some teammates, decided to take some control of their situation.
Just hours before they were scheduled to get on a plane and fly back to Provo, members of the track and field team put on the uniforms they would’ve worn in the competition and did one final run along the Rio Grande. Eleven miles later, Franco and Heslington seemingly completed their collegiate careers.
ATHLETES OFTEN SAY they put their blood, sweat and tears into their respective sports. Time and time again, BYU senior athletes said their initial reaction to sports cancelation was tears.
Javelin thrower Courtney Isom said she cried for a few hours after hearing the news, while her teammate and fellow senior Elise Romney said her initial reaction was also tears. Long-distance runner Whittni Orton said she sunk into a state of sadness in the days that came after the news.
Baseball senior Jarod Lessar emotionally addressed his whole team, thinking there was still so much unfinished business, before calling his father and shedding tears with him over the phone. His senior teammate Abraham Valdez took time to himself and cried on the same Miller Park field that had brought him so much joy for years.
Senior Anna Kennedy of women’s golf said she lost sleep for days after the news broke because she would be up crying at night. Toolson of men’s basketball felt like after a season full of adversity, there was still hope — hope until the cancelation announcement was made.
“We fought all season long, and there was that light at the end of the tunnel. Even when things weren’t going how we expected them or there was adversity, there was that light at the end of the tunnel because we were fighting to do things at the end of the season like play in the NCAA tournament. It turns out the light at the end of the tunnel was a train, and it ran us over,” Toolson told BYU Sports Nation.
ALONG WITH GAMES and championship events, goals and dreams also came to an end. Women’s basketball senior Brenna Chase Drollinger said it felt like her life was canceled because the game was her identity.
Games can be made up, but for many of the athletes, the biggest loss was working their entire lives for something they will never be able to finish, putting years of hard work and dedication into something that never had a tangible finish.
“The end of my senior year had come before I could even bring anything to fruition,” BYU track and field senior Derek Sorensen said.
The athletes shed tears with their teammates as reality continued to hit them. For some, having their season end meant their professional life was beginning months before they anticipated.
BYU men’s golf senior Peter Kuest decided to return to BYU for his senior season rather than playing for a spot on the PGA tour and earning money as a professional. He said his senior season meant setting records and getting a degree, but only one of those things happened.
“The biggest loss is not being able to set more records for my BYU career and competing with my teammates for conference and NCAA titles,” Kuest said.
Senior cheerleader and stunt team captain Jenae Hyde mirrored the words of Kuest. She said it was difficult putting in all the work she, her teammates and her coaches did, and now not having the opportunity to show everyone the work they did.
Her comment was reiterated by men’s tennis senior Sam Tullis, who said its frustrating to have a skilled team that could qualify for NCAA championship events but never know for sure if they would have qualified because the opportunity was taken away.
With so much lost because of the situation, athletes were left looking for a silver lining, anything to somehow make the situation a little less painful.
One of these silver linings is the lessons that senior athletes will take with them for the rest of their lives. Looking back, men’s golf senior Spencer Dunaway said that BYU pushed him to be the best version of himself academically, spiritually and athletically. Track and field’s Isom added that the senior athletes are proud of the way they conducted themselves at the university, whether that meant as an athlete or as a representative of BYU.
“Since I was a little girl I had a dream to be a collegiate athlete. I fought my way through trials to get there and I lived my dream. For that, I will always be proud,” Isom said.
Another silver lining was knowing they gave everything they had. Lessons of sacrifice, hard work, growth and friendship made their time at BYU successful, regardless of the outcome.
“To be a part of something special, it meant every single guy had to be bought in,” Toolson said. “We got everything we wanted out of this season.”
THIS YEAR, the legacies that are left by BYU athletes and their respective teams won’t be found on a stat sheet or box score, but they are clearly evident.
Men’s tennis senior Sean Hill said he wants to continue being a role model on and off the court. Other senior athletes said they want people to know that the best years of their lives came in a BYU uniform as they gave everything they had to the university.
With nothing left to give but advice for the younger competitors, baseball pitcher Lessar said he would tell each athlete to play every game like it’s their last, because, in his experience, athletes really don’t know when their last game will be.
With the NCAA coming to an agreement on March 30 that spring sport athletes can receive an extra year of eligibility, many of BYU’s senior athletes will be returning for one more season. Even having this in mind, it doesn’t change the emotions felt on the fateful day of March 12 when the sports world came crashing down. The constant question of “what if” will always remain.
Distance runner Whitni Orton said every person is individually affected by the current situation. She recommended having faith that it will all work out, being grateful and taking time to love the people that matter most.
FOR THE ATHLETES that won’t play their sports ever again, it’s might not be as the saying goes — not a goodbye, but a see you later — because in reality, the athletes really might be saying goodbye to the sports they love. Even so, the memories of playing the games they loved as a collegiate athlete for their dream university still remain.
“If I were never to compete again, I would want to tell people never to take an opportunity for granted. Every meet, game or competition is a chance to be your best self. We can’t get these moments back, so we have to make the most of them now,” Romney said.