If not for the coronavirus pandemic that canceled spring sports around the country, the St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Baseball Tournament would be taking place this weekend, and there’s a good chance that Spalding University, which in mid-March was nationally ranked and on a long winning streak, would have been part of the four-team tournament.
The sudden shutdown of the Golden Eagles’ 2020 season nearly two month ago – which occurred just as they were arriving in Florida for a spring-break slate of games – was a jarring and difficult blow for a team with high hopes of earning an NCAA Division III Tournament bid, coach Matt Downs said. But Downs said he was proud of the leadership and maturity of his players in realizing that canceling the season was a necessary step for the safety of themselves and their families.
The dizzying sequence of news that led to the halting of all U.S. sports took place while the Spalding baseball team was traveling south to the Russmatt Central Florida Invitational. The Golden Eagles were on the second day of a 17-hour bus trip when word got out that Division I conference basketball tournaments were being canceled, followed by the cancellation of NCAA March Madness and all other winter and spring college championships. The NBA also suspended its season after a player tested positive for COVID-19.
“We had ESPN on the satellite TVs on the bus, and we were traveling across state lines as basically the whole sports world shut down before our eyes,” Downs said.
Spalding’s first game in Florida was called off when its opponent canceled its season. Soon after, Downs said Spalding’s seniors – pitcher Logan Koch, catcher Isaac Lineberry, outfielder Garrett Wilson, shortstop Eric Meyer – and juniors also elected to not play any other games that weekend once it became clear that there would be no postseason to play for and that participation in any additional regular-season games could pose a health risk.
“I thought that was really responsible of them,” Downs said. “I’m recently married and was thinking about home and family and big-picture stuff, but for them, as 20-, 21-, 22-year-olds to make a decision like that that was responsible even though it may have meant they never get to step on the field again, I really, truly commend them for that decision.”
The day before the team was set to make the long trip back to Louisville, NCAA Division III tweeted that spring student-athletes would be granted an additional year of eligibility if they’d like to use it.
Downs said the four seniors saw the D-III announcement before he did. When he visited their room that day to check in, he expected the seniors to be bummed out. Instead they were all upbeat.
“That put a new spring in their step and a new breath of fresh air in them,” Downs said. “The seniors and juniors saw it as an opportunity that this doesn’t have to be done. … They were fired up, and there was a renewed sense of joy.”
It provided consolation for a disappointing end to a promising season. Spalding entered the spring break trip to Orlando with momentum – an 11-3 record and an eight-game winning streak. The Golden Eagles had just kicked off conference competition by sweeping Principia in three games by a combined score of 38-7.
The Orlando games would have allowed them a chance to rack up a few resume-building nonconference wins. Then, Spalding would have returned to SLIAC play with a chance to make noise against Fontbonne and Webster.
“We had a lot of great things going for us,” Downs said.
As disappointing as it was, Downs is excited by the chance in 2021 to return some of the Golden Eagles’ talented seniors as grad students while also bringing in a strong recruiting class. The coach praised Spalding’s seniors for their leadership, practice habits and willingness to help younger teammates. It’ll be a long wait, but now there’s a chance to continue the momentum into next season.
“I think our story can be a little more hopeful and joyful,” Downs said. “… I think for a night we were kind of heartbroken, but then the NCAA stepped up and did the right thing, and the guys can see hope and opportunity.”