Whitman women’s basketball head coach Michelle Ferenz wasn’t thinking about any cancellations when her team left Walla Walla, Washington, for Maine to play in its Sweet 16 matchup against Oglethorpe.
“Some of the sites back east were already closing their doors and cancelling trips for their spring sports,” she said. “We were getting the feeling that at the very least, we were probably going to play with a very small fan base or no fan base at all the rest of the way. When we left for Maine, I wasn’t thinking about it. We weren’t thinking our games would get cancelled.”
But they were. The game was scheduled for Friday, March 13, and on the Thursday before, the entire tournament was called off.
At that point, it wasn’t a complete surprise to Michelle Ferenz, she said. The NBA had suspended its season after Rudy Gobert tested positive for the coronavirus, and more parts of the sports world were shutting down, too.
Even though the tournament’s cancellation didn’t blindside her when it came, that didn’t make it any easier.
“This happened so fast, it was a little stunning to say the least,” Ferenz explained. “I’ve been coaching for a while, and the hardest things as a coach are the things you can’t control: injuries, illness. This is one of the things we can’t control. As a coach, we’re control freaks. That’s how we are, that’s how we’re wired. We work so hard to control as many aspects of what we do. This is hard thing when something is not controllable.”
Like the rest of higher education, Whitman closed its doors and asked for students to not return. This led to some issues with players returning to get their stuff back after having already left campus for Maine, and it is the top problem Ferenz said she has been tackling with her players since the season ended.
Most of the questions she has fielded from her players has been about logistics like that, though she knows the impact of this situation is much deeper.
“There’s nothing to say,” she said. “I think it’s one of those things, they get it. I think every athlete gets it that this is a really unusual and serious matter, and we all have to play our part, but the sting of the hurt doesn’t go away. It’s going to be there, even though you can rationalize it and know it was the right thing to do. We’re hoping it was the right thing to do. Nobody knows. We don’t know. But we have to do what we think is best, and it’s not about us.”
There is loss for Michelle Ferenz, and everyone else who loves college sports, outside of her own journey to a potential national championship ending. She said that the men’s and women’s NCAA Division I tournaments have always been a ritual for her in March after the Division III campaign concludes. She is also a big spring sports fan and was excited to enjoy college sports like softball, but that will no longer happen.
Like everyone else, she is faced with the reality of no sports for an indefinite period of time and a country and world that is constantly unusual.
“No one has a memory of something like this happening,” she said. “9/11, things came to a halt in some respects, many walks of life, but I remember my grandparents talking about World War II and Pearl Harbor and how life just completely changed. So many aspects of society shut down. How sports and national championships were affected, how the nation mobilized. I remember them talking about that, but I had no context.
“Now, I do unfortunately have a context.”
For as negative as the situation appears to be, and the reality is, it largely is, you cannot focus on that, Ferenz said.
“Life, circumstances and opportunities are fragile and fleeting,” she said. “You can’t dwell on the negative. You can’t worry so much about what could happen. You have to embrace things as they come.”
It’s a brutal way to end a run for a national title, let alone a collegiate career. There is no sugarcoating that. But Michelle Ferenz explained that while the tragedy of unfinished business won’t go away, there are plenty of incredible moments and memories that this group had together and that the seniors enjoyed during their years in the program.
“We talk about the journey and appreciating the journey. Don’t always get caught up in the destination but in the journey,” Ferenz said. “Teams and organization that really do that value the day-to-day, the relationships, the work and doing things right, building that culture. Enjoy the journey, value the journey, value the people you’re with, because the results aren’t guaranteed. You do your best. You can’t control everything.
“I think our kids will gain that perspective. They did so many things right and played so well, took care of each other, were great teammates, worked hard. They did everything right, and there is value in that and there are lessons to be learned in that. I don’t know if they want to hear that right now, but those are things they’ll carry with them in whatever they do and wherever they go. That’s what sports and the experience should be.”
Lastly, Ferenz had a message for all athletes and sports fans to remember that this too shall pass.
“Sports will be back. We’ll remember why they’re so fun,” she said, “and we’ll appreciate them a little bit more.”