Should I Stay or Should I Go?
Written by Paul Swenson and Chelsea Adams with photography by BYU Photo and art by Anneka Southam.
On March 30, the NCAA granted schools the ability to provide spring-sport student-athletes who were impacted by COVID-19 with another year of eligibility. At BYU, this includes sports such as men’s volleyball, softball, baseball, women’s and men’s golf, outdoor track & field and women’s and men’s tennis.
The NCAA’s announcement didn’t immediately grant all spring athletes the option to come back next season. While schools were permitted to bring these athletes back, not all schools have given their students this opportunity. One example is the University of Wisconsin, which announced seniors will not be granted the ability to return next season.
Finances are one of the primary reasons all schools aren’t welcoming their spring-sport seniors back next season. It can be difficult to finance a collegiate tennis, soccer or baseball program, even during normal times. Additionally, by not allowing spring athletes to return, athletic departments may be setting a precedent in case they decide not to honor scholarships for larger teams, like football and basketball, if those seasons are impacted, as well.
Other schools have even been forced to consolidate sports. Central Michigan, Florida International, Old Dominion and Cincinnati have already eliminated sports, and many experts believe more programs will likely be forced to do the same. College sports expert and former SB Nation writer Matt Brown said this is an uncertain time for college sports in general.
“This is the time of the greatest financial upheaval for higher education and athletic departments, ever,” Brown said. “I think some schools are going to cut sports.”
Brown also mentioned that smaller schools and programs with higher travel costs — which usually includes teams in the west who are forced to fly, rather than take the bus — could be the most likely to cut programs.
BYU has already announced spring-sport seniors will be granted the option to return next year, but will it be forced to consolidate any programs? As a private school that isn’t as worried about enrollment as their public counterparts, BYU seems less likely to face that issue.
“BYU is an institution that is probably on much safer financial footing than most of their peers,” Brown said. “But that could still hurt BYU and some of their sports because, what if UVU or other closer schools drop their program? Now BYU has to spend a lot more on travel.”
Although BYU may not have to drop any programs, they could be negatively impacted by other schools getting rid of theirs.
BYU Associate Athletic Director Duff Tittle said BYU fans will have to wait and see how this impacts the school.
“At this point it’s too early to tell what impact the NCAA’s decision about giving spring-sport athletes another year of eligibility will have at BYU,” Tittle said. “Our coaches are having individual conversations with each senior student athlete in the spring sports regarding the option to extend eligibility as outlined by the NCAA.”
While all athletes were impacted by the cancellation of the spring season, BYU seniors, who were anticipating 2020 to be the final year of their college career, are now faced with the decision to either stay for an unforeseen fifth year or begin the next chapter in life.
WHEN WIL STANLEY and the BYU men’s volleyball team first heard the news that their upcoming match against Stanford was canceled just 10 minutes before they were scheduled to board their plane, they were in disbelief.
“It all just happened so fast that we just didn’t know what to do,” Stanley said.
A couple days later, Stanley and the team found out the entire season was canceled, as well.
“Within two days we went from being the number one team in the country to having our season completely over,” he said.
Although he had no idea how the NCAA and BYU would handle this situation at the time, Stanley informed head coach Shawn Olmstead of his intentions to come back for next season if that opportunity was given. He said regardless of other offers or circumstances he would come back to play for BYU.
Stanley wasn’t the only one. He and the two other seniors on the team, Miki Jauhiainen and Zach Eschenberg, each expressed their desire to return to play for BYU next season.
“Seeing the three of us want to do it made the whole team super excited for next year,” Stanley said. “The day that it was announced, we all called each other and wanted to know what we were doing. That was a big thing for all the guys, to see how much we wanted to come back and that we really thought we could do this again next year. We’re giving up a year of pursuing our dreams or careers to come back and play volleyball for BYU.”
Stanley made the news official last month on BYU SportsNation, saying he couldn’t end his career at BYU without knowing what could’ve happened with this team.
For Stanley, the decision to come back was an easy one. Not only does he feel a commitment to the team, the fans, and the school, but he also sees this as an opportunity to continue to develop and get better before attempting to play professionally after next season.
BYU TRACK & FIELD ATHLETE Erika Birk-Jarvis was featured last year across both local and national media for her determination to return to running after giving birth to her son, Jack. Runner’s World, ESPN, The Salt Lake Tribune and The Church News all featured Birk-Jarvis, who earned first-team All-America honors after missing the 2018 season. This time around, however, she’s decided that her BYU running career is over, and she won’t be returning for next season.
While the decision to not return for next season was certainly difficult, Birk-Jarvis said she feels good about the choice she’s made.
“It was a tough decision, but now I’m at peace with it,” Birk-Jarvis said. “I talked with my coach about it a lot, and the more I thought about it, I just couldn’t imagine going back for next year. A lot of other college athletes are young, single and able to give all they have to their sport, but I’m a mom and I’m married. There’s so much that goes into running and I’m just not ready to do that again.”
Like many other athletes, Birk-Jarvis said the cancellation of the spring season happened so fast and left everybody speechless.
“It was a surreal time because it just almost seemed like a joke,” Birk-Jarvis said “No one understood how serious COVID-19 was. One day we were laughing, saying ‘Oh, what if school gets canceled?’ and then the next day, it actually happened.”
Birk-Jarvis said it was also strange to look back and realize that the last race she’d run with the cross-country team was also the last race she’d even run for BYU.
Even after the season was canceled, she still had hope that she could participate in the Olympics. Birk-Jarvis has qualified for the steeplechase and anticipated spending the next several months preparing for that event.
After the 2020 games in Tokyo were canceled, however, her hopes of participating in the Olympics are up in the air.
Now that her BYU career is over and the Olympics have been postponed, Birk-Jarvis sees herself potentially getting into coaching as a volunteer at a local high school.
“I am proud of the things that I have done in the past, so I feel like that made it a little bit easier for me to decide not to come back for next season,” Birk-Jarvis said. “Of course, I wish I could’ve participated in outdoor track, but I feel like I gave it everything I had.”
BYU SOFTBALL’S RYLEE JENSEN-MCFARLAND was devastated about the cancellation of her senior year. She, like many college seniors across the country, thought her days of playing collegiate sports were over. The team was only a third of the way through their season and was preparing for a road game against Alabama when the news hit that the season was canceled.
“The news kind of got to me for a bit,” Jensen-McFarland said. “Then when BYU said they were going to honor the senior’s scholarships for next season, that’s when I was relieved and excited to come back for next season.”
Jensen-McFarland’s coaches, school plans, career plans and family — along with her love for the game — all played a major role in the decision to return for next year. Even before the season began, she was already planning on having one more semester in the fall and helping the team as a student coach, so, for her, all it took was adding another semester of school.
Now that she has decided to return, the training for next season has already begun.
Jensen-McFarland and her husband Darius McFarland, a member of the BYU football team, have been doing everything they can to work out and stay in shape, even without the facilities on campus. The couple is making the most of what they have available to them, utilizing parks and small gyms at their apartment complex.
“I obviously took a couple days to figure out what I wanted to do. I talked to my husband about it to see if it was something we could do,” Jensen-McFarland said. “But after that, it was no question. I felt like I had unfinished business.”
THE BYU WOMEN’S TENNIS TEAM was on in the midst of one of its best seasons in recent history before play was shut down. Coming off three straight team wins, senior Kate Cusick Truman was preparing for the first conference match against Saint Mary’s when the season was officially canceled.
“It was kind of surreal,” Truman said. “I didn’t think we would get canceled just because we don’t have a stadium full of fans and don’t have physical contact. When we heard the news, I felt like the world was ending and just crashing down around me.”
Similar to many other athletes, Truman said the most difficult part of the whole thing was realizing she had participated in her last match and didn’t even know it at the time.
“We found out the season was officially over on a Monday at a team meeting,” Truman said. “It was actually a really cool experience. It wasn’t a happy experience, but with all of our team in one room, we just cried for a long time. We were devastated.”
A couple of weeks later, after finding out that BYU would grant her the option to return to play next season, Truman went back and forth while figuring out her options.
“It was hard for me because I’d already made plans for this summer and beyond,” Truman said. “My husband and I were going to move to California, and I was going to be done with tennis. When they said it was possible for me to come back for next season, I was just so confused on how that could work for us.”
After weighing the pros and cons, Truman decided not to return for next season and to move on with the next step in her life.
BYU women’s tennis coach Heather Hasler ensured Truman she’d be happy to have Truman back on the team next season. She also reminded Truman there’s more to life than just tennis.
“The more I thought about whether or not I should come back next year, I felt like there wasn’t really a right or wrong answer,” Truman said. “If I did return to play, I feel like I would succeed and be great, but if I didn’t, I would still succeed and be great in other areas of my life
EVER SINCE BYU BASEBALL CATCHER Abe Valdez was a kid he had the dream of hearing his name called in the MLB draft. Before the start of this year’s baseball season, Valdez thought this was finally going to be the year he’d see that dream come to life.
When the collegiate season was cut short, however, the draft was shortened from its usual 40 rounds, and Valdez was forced to change his plans.
Valdez, who says he’ll most likely return to BYU next season, will use the year to continue to get better and put himself in a position to hear his name called on draft day.
“I knew I wanted to come back to BYU when I heard about what was happening with the draft,” Valdez said. “When they came out with the news that the draft was only going to be five rounds, I knew I wasn’t going to get drafted, so I decided I should come back to BYU for another year.”
The past couple of months have been a time of uncertainty for Valdez, who is now staying in Alabama with his parents until he’s able to return to Provo for school and baseball.
“When I started to see a lot of teams and conferences cancel their baseball seasons, I had an idea that the season getting canceled was a possibility,” Valdez said. “My mindset still had to be that I had a game today, so I have to get ready for that. My mentality was that if we played, I’d be ready to play, but if we didn’t, then that’s it.”
After hearing the news, Valdez said BYU baseball head coach Mike Littlewood and other coaches called the seniors together and explained the situation.
“I was starting to get emotional while talking to them,” Valdez said. “I felt my eyes start tearing up. As soon as I left the coaches office, I walked to the locker room and I had to stand outside for a bit to let my emotions calm down. Coach Littlewood then broke the news to the team, and I broke down like a little baby, just crying.”
For now, Valdez continues to keep himself busy with a regular routine of workouts. He’s even had chances to sign free agent deals, but he’s kept his focus on another year of BYU baseball and his ultimate goal of being drafted into the MLB.
“The opportunities are there for me now, but I’ve always dreamed about hearing my name called in the draft,” Valdez said.
With the 2020 spring season now in the rearview mirror, these and many other senior athletes have a lot to think about over the next several weeks. “Should I stay and live out my dream to play my senior year of college sports?” “Or should I go and possibly attempt to play professionally or even move on with other priorities?”
Whichever decision these student athletes make, BYU made a strong statement by even giving them the option to return for another season. Now, it’s up to each individual.