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Lost spring: Group of Whitworth senior athletes talk about the abrupt end to their seasons

UPDATED: Sun., March 29, 2020

By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

Like those on college campuses across the country, the Whitworth fields and courts are all but empty these days.

With competitions shuttered for the rest of the spring, Pirates teams disbanded early, their seasons cut short by national efforts to slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Division III Administrative Committee canceled all spring national championships on March 12; the next day, it granted an extra season of eligibility for spring sports athletes. Division I will vote on whether to afford its spring athletes an extra season on Monday.

At the time, Whitworth’s baseball team, 11-5 overall, was preparing to host a three-game series that weekend at Merkel Field. The women’s tennis team was 4-4 and ready to go to Oregon for a pair of Northwest Conference meets. And the track and field team had just begun its outdoor season.

All those seasons were suspended on March 12 and canceled officially four days later.

For college seniors the sudden end was particularly difficult – and especially so for D-III athletes. For them, there are no scholarships, and the promise of an extra season of eligibility, while an affordance they appreciate, is not something everyone can take advantage of.

“The challenge is, if you were set to graduate, what are you gonna do in the fall?” said Whitworth athletics director Tim Demant. “I don’t anticipate many of our seniors coming back.”

Many have jobs lined up already. Some had already graduated in December and were taking one or two classes while they took advantage of their final season of eligibility.

Some do plan to return next spring, Demant said, and if they enroll at another school someday down the road, they still will have that one season of eligibility left.

But for nearly all of Whitworth’s spring athletes, one thing is certain: This is not at all how they expected their college careers to end.

Sarah Cool: Running with a new purpose

Cold Alaskan rains rarely stopped Sarah Cool from running. A pandemic hasn’t stopped her, either – albeit it has changed her purpose.

“It’s weird to have to exercise and do things on my own,” she said after a midday run at the Timberlake High School track in Spirit Lake, Idaho. “Now I’m exercising for my health, and not for competing for anything.”

After the track and field season ended, Cool moved to Spirit Lake, where her mother moved when Cool first graduated from Ketchikan High School.

Cool hoped to play soccer collegiately, and she did for a year – as a sophomore – at Whitworth. But she found success as a cross-country runner and as a track and field athlete in various events, including the heptathlon.

But the summer before her junior season in 2018, she suffered “a lot of tears and fractures” in her knee and wasn’t back to competing until two months ago, only to participate in just three meets.

She has coped with the season’s conclusion in various stages, she said.

“First it was a lot of anger and denial,” Cool said. “I felt like I had worked so hard to get to that point, and to have it taken away from me felt like I had been robbed of two years of athletics.”

But lately she has reflected on it differently, holding that everything happens for a reason.

“Maybe the reason was I was gonna re-hurt myself, or maybe I was not gonna perform like I wanted, and it would have torn me down in an emotional way,” she said. “So I’m really trying to look at it from the aspect of (there’s) not much I could do, and I’m not the only one, and I have to move forward.”

Cool plans to enroll in a physical therapy graduate program at the University of Montana in the fall.

Erica Lee: From present to past

Erica Lee isn’t yet accustomed to speaking about her tennis career at Whitworth in the past tense.

“I think that’s the first time I actually said it correctly the first time,” she said. “It’s been like, ‘I play,’ and I’d catch myself and have to change it up. It’s definitely been hard.”

Lee was the lone senior on the Pirates’ women’s tennis team, which started – and ultimately ended – Northwest Conference play with a 3-1 record. Individually, Lee was 2-4 on the season as the team’s No. 1 singles player and 5-2 with No. 1 doubles partner Avery Liening, a junior.

“This is true for pretty much every athlete at Whitworth: Tennis and sports, it was pretty much my life at Whitworth,” Lee said. “I was already mentally prepared to say ‘bye’ to it in April.”

But the abrupt nature of the season’s cancellation was difficult, she said.

“I started playing sports when I was 7, so ever since then every day is: Go to school, go to practice, do homework, and there’s my day,” Lee said.

Technically Lee already graduated, though she hopes there can be a spring commencement so she can walk then. Unlike some Whitworth seniors, Lee hasn’t gone home during the stay-home order. She is still working at a Starbucks near campus.

She continues to play when she can, though when the indoor tennis bubble was closed last week “that was another hit,” she said.

Currently, Lee is enrolled in classes online to get a degree as a veterinary technician and eventually intends to go to veterinary school. She plans to stay in Spokane for now, she said, and whenever adult tennis leagues start up again, she intends to join one.

“I was never gonna give it up,” she said.

Kalista Fourre: Two bonus seasons

A basketball and softball player in high school, Kalista Fourre didn’t plan on competing collegiately.

But then Whitworth started a lacrosse program, and Fourre figured there was no harm in trying out.

“I ended up really enjoying it,” Fourre said. “It was completely random. Not part of my plan at all.”

During the 2019 season, her first year playing the sport – not just collegiately, but competitively at any level – Fourre earned second-team All-Northwest Conference as a defender.

“At first it was really terrifying,” she said, “but I really liked the challenge that it brought. I also didn’t realize how much I missed the competition aspect of playing a team sport and the camaraderie of your teammates. It filled a hole in me I didn’t know I had.”

The Pirates only got in three matches before the season was canceled, going 1-2 with a 19-5 victory over Whitman on March 11.

Fourre said she is likely done and has a gap year planned after she graduates this spring. Her goal is to enroll in a master’s program after that to pursue a career in cancer research.

Though she counts the two years as a bonus, considering she didn’t set out to play college sports, Fourre said it was hard to see the season cut short. She estimated she spent at least 12 hours a week with her teammates – even more with best friend Hannah Meador, who persuaded her to try out in the first place.

“You get really used to seeing them all the time, and that becomes for me the highlight of my day,” she said. “I feel like I can step onto the lacrosse field and be there with my teammates, and I can forget about everything else in my life and focus in on that one thing. I miss that.”

Nick McGill: One more season to go

Nick McGill was in North Carolina preparing to compete in the D-III Indoor Track and Field Championships when news about cancellations flooded in.

“It went from being family and coaches only, to coaches and athletes only, and that was the status quo at practice,” McGill said of the ever tightening restrictions on fans.

Those announcements came on a Thursday, the day before the event was scheduled to begin.

By late that afternoon, the whole competition was canceled. McGill, his wife and his parents changed their flights and returned to Spokane.

McGill was one of 20 heptathletes scheduled to compete at nationals; a year earlier, McGill finished ninth in the event and set a Whitworth record with a 4,900-point performance. He beat his own record by 34 points at the Portland Indoor in February.

“It was kinda numb for a while. It just didn’t really set in until we got back,” McGill said. “It still hasn’t completely.”

For McGill, though, this will not be the end of his competitive career. His plan is to enroll in a graduate program next year so he can take advantage of the extra season of eligibility given to Division III spring-sport athletes.

McGill, who also plays football for the Pirates, has a job lined up already, one he has been working at this week. They have been flexible as he figures out what the next 15 months will look like, he said.

“One thing after the dust had settled a bit, there was some excitement because I’ve never had the fall and summer season to train for track,” McGill said. “It’s always been football through the summer and the fall, so that’s a little bit exciting. That was the silver lining. There’s more time to train for next year, and there’s still an opportunity to compete.”

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