For a college basketball player, there’s no better month than March. It’s when all the hard work culminates, and tickets to the hallowed NCAA championships are punched.
Carrying a four-game win streak into the Missouri Valley Conference tournament, including a victory against nationally ranked Missouri State on Feb. 27, the Illinois State women’s basketball team was riding high. The Redbirds felt they had just as good a chance as anyone to win the nine-team MVC tournament in the Quad Cities and earn the league’s automatic bid to the NCAAs.
“In March, anything can happen,” current senior JuJu Redmond said. “That’s why it’s called March Madness.”
Before they could ever take the court, an entirely different madness swept through the country—and globe. On Wednesday, March 11, two days before the Redbirds quarterfinal contest against Northern Iowa, the NBA abruptly suspended its season after its first positive case of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). That set off a domino effect. By the next afternoon, most sporting events for the foreseeable future were canceled. That included the remainder of the college basketball season.
When that news broke, the Redbirds were on the court in the Quad Cities practicing. Coach Kristen Gillespie gathered her team in a huddle and shared the news. Gillespie would later say on Twitter that it was the hardest thing she had to do as a coach.
All the sudden, the Redbirds’ hopes of playing in the NCAA tournament were dashed.
“It was really sad because I really felt like we could have made it far and to the championship game and made it to the Big Dance,” Redmond said. “We played so hard for our seniors to get there.”
Winter sports were canceled right at the climax of their seasons. Spring sports didn’t have much of an opportunity to get off the ground, while fall sports wound up being postponed before they even started.
The Illinois State baseball team, fresh off a trip to the NCAA tournament in 2019, was playing in Florida when the country began shutting down. The Redbirds, just 16 games into the season, played Florida State University on March 11 and were in the middle of the game when news broke of the NBA.
“That was when we knew we might be in some trouble,” said pitcher Colton Johnson ’20. The NCAA called off the spring sports season before Illinois State had its next game two nights later.
It was a bittersweet end for everyone, but the NCAA left it up to schools to determine waivers for spring sport athletes since their seasons had barely begun. Winter athletes did not have such a luxury since most of their seasons had been completed.
Johnson took advantage of that rule and decided to come back to Illinois State. After earning an undergraduate degree in personal finance, Johnson will return to ISU to pursue both a master’s degree and another NCAA tournament run.
“Last year we stressed having fun and not thinking about the moment,” he said. “This year, guys like me who are there for another year, we’re taking nothing for granted. You never know when your last game might be.”
Some even see the disappointment as an extra opportunity. Last spring, several members of the Redbird track and field teams were having to choose between Olympic trials and an NCAA season. There wasn’t enough time between the spring 2020 outdoor national championships and the trials to amply do both. But with the Tokyo Olympics pushed back, the schedules will align better this spring.
“I’ll be another year stronger, older, and have another year to work technically,” said thrower Sydney Laufenberg, who was a second-team All-American in 2019. “I keep trying to think that this is happening for good reasons.”
Most athletes are aware that the situation is bigger than themselves and that everyone’s health comes first and foremost. They also know the fluid situation is out of their control.
For now, student-athletes are training hard as if they will get to compete for championships again while wearing the Redbird logo on their jerseys. The suspension of their beloved sports has given them an extra hunger to give it everything they’ve got when they once again can suit up and compete.
“We are an extremely motivated group, and I think we have unfinished business because we didn’t get to show how much better we had gotten throughout the season last year,” said women’s basketball player Mary Crompton. “We will miss our seniors, but we have a lot of players from that team back with something to prove.”