The WashU Bears were practicing on the same court that they would take on North Central (IL) the following day in the Sweet 16 of the 2020 NCAA Division III Men’s Tournament when word came.
With 44 minutes remaining in the NCAA-sanctioned 90-minute session, Wheaton head coach Mike Schauer approached WashU head coach Pat Juckem while his team was in the midst of an intense shell drill, Juckem recalled.
“I think (the NCAA site rep) had known for a few minutes but was going to let us finish that segment, and it just kept going,” Juckem said. “Eventually, Mike Schauer walked onto the floor and said, ‘Pat, I’m sorry, the NCAA just cancelled the tournament. I’m sorry, but we gotta finish up here.’”
And with that, WashU’s season was over. The quest for the program’s third title and fourth Final Four was done. At the snap of a finger, everything the group had worked for over the past seven-plus months was complete.
“That’s an unusual way,” Juckem said. “Your season always ends on the floor, either in a win or a loss, most of the times in a loss. Our ended on the floor, thankfully. I’m thankful we weren’t on the bus or in the hotel. If it was going to end not in a game, I was just hoping we could get to practice.”
Juckem said his team ends every practice by going to the center circle, putting their arms around one another and asking what they learned that day. After the news broke of the tournament’s cancellation, the team naturally moved to the center of the court.
“No one called them there, we just kind of all migrated there,” Juckem explained. “I do recall our younger guys, our underclassmen, going right to the seniors and hugging our seniors.”
The emotions of the situation began to show.
“That’s how their career ended. That is hard,” Pat Juckem said. “There always will be that part that there wasn’t that normal closure of a season. But we were together, and we had a powerful experience and moment, many moments there. I’m thankful that we were able to be together, and we were on the wood when it ended.”
The team bused back down south from Chicago to Saint Louis on the day the Sweet 16 game should have happened, and it felt more like a party than a funeral. Players had their speakers out, and the team enjoyed their final hours together. Not long after arriving back, players dispersed back to their hometowns as campus began to shut down.
The realization that that group of 17 players and four coaches might not ever be in the same room again hit Juckem.
“We’ve been together in this intense experience for five months, and now it’s like, will our group ever be together in one room? All of us?” he said. “We may not, and that’s really hard to process. We may not get everyone back together again when we had such a great group of guys.”
“They were all major contributors, leaders,” Pat Juckem said. “They went through a coaching change during their career. They played for a Hall of Fame coach for the first two years with a different system. I come in when they’re juniors. They were stuck behind a really good class that was in front of them, so they really haven’t had many opportunities.
“They’ve been really my core for my first two years. I was really fortunate to walk into such a great group of guys who have bought into everything from day one. They waited their turn, kept working, and had a shot. We’ll never know. We were playing with a lot of confidence. We could have got beat that round or one day later. But we could have won and kept going, who knows.”
Now, Juckem is home with his family. WashU is closed, and only essential staff are returning to the office. Juckem is working from his house and has been spending significantly more time with his two kids than normal this time of year. His youngest, Gavin, 14, was born with a complex heart defect, and that’s led the family to take every flu season very seriously. The family is taking every precaution in the face of this pandemic.
Pat Juckem has turned this time into an opportunity to be with his kids more, from long bike rides to board games. March Madness was typically something the family shared together, and while that won’t be the case this year, it does give Juckem a chance to showcase some of the best games from yesteryear to his young ones. This is how it’s possible to find positives in all the negatives.
“Our profession, it does take you away,” he said. “It just did a 180 to the point where I’ve got a new routine with my youngest. We have breakfast, and then he’s got a favorite card game we play every morning. We’re keeping a scoreboard. Normally I wouldn’t have done that. I wouldn’t have spent that time. I’ve watched Disney movies with him for a couple afternoons now.
“I went on a bike ride yesterday. I haven’t gone on a bike ride on a trail with him in five, six, eight years, I don’t know, it’s been a long time. Even in the midst of what we’re tackling, this is pretty good just to appreciate some of the things that you haven’t had the opportunity to do because of life or you just don’t stop and get off the hamster wheel.”
This is in line with what Pat Juckem hopes experiencing this crisis will teach people and our greater society.
“We talk a lot within coaching and within our team, our value of selflessness, playing for what’s on the front of the jersey, not the back, some of the clichés, but valuing the essence of team,” he explained. “In basketball, synergy and guys willing to accept roles is part and parcel of great teams, and that’s really what we’re being called to do right now. We’re being called to social distance and shelter, stay indoors, and not just for us but for others.
“There’s going to be a lot of people hurting: loss of jobs, loss of income, school shutdowns. This is going to be really hard, and people are going to be in need. (Let’s learn) what it means to be a really good human and being a great teammate. Hopefully that brings that back to the surface. Life is at such a pace, and we get caught up in it, myself certainly included. We really are relying upon everyone. Our safety is not just on our own but in everyone practicing these guidelines, and hopefully we can slow this down. Maybe we come out of this a better team.”