ELLSWORTH — This was not how the 2019-20 college sports season was supposed to end.
As is always the case, the flip of the calendar from February to March raised the stakes for athletes at universities across the country. For winter athletes, it meant the chance to compete for championships; for those competing in spring athletics, it marked the start of conference play and the first full month of the season.
Instead, that season came to a grinding halt with a series of cancellations stemming from the novel coronavirus. From the NCAA canceling March Madness and other championship events to individual conferences calling off their winter tournaments, athletes who are used to seeing their seasons end on the courts, fields and tracks instead saw them end in conference rooms.
With winter sports nearing the end, the season’s conclusion was a finality for those athletes; for the underclassmen, a year they would never get back, and for the seniors, the end of the line. Yet with spring sports still in their early stages, those involved in baseball, softball, tennis, outdoor track and more earned a major reprieve: an added season of eligibility.
“It feels good to know that we have that opportunity,” said Conner Wagstaff, who graduated from Ellsworth High School last year and now plays baseball at Southern New Hampshire University. “We’re obviously bummed out with the season being over, but at least we know we have that option going forward.”
The eligibility relief came after the NCAA Board of Governors instructed all three divisions of competition to grant an additional year to affected athletes. Administrative committees for each division announced March 13 that they would be providing said relief, though details are still being sorted out at the Division I level.
Whereas Wagstaff and Southern New Hampshire had already played 16 games by the time the season was canceled, other teams had yet to begin when the dominoes began to fall. Such was the case with the Thomas College baseball team, which features three Ellsworth graduates (Nick Bagley, Devin Grindle and Brad Smith) and was less than a week away from its first game.
“It’s really hard because we should be down in Florida playing right now,” Grindle said Tuesday. “We had been practicing since January and had even started some of our outdoor practices, so it’s tough.”
Among the issues to be addressed is the effect eligibility relief will have on roster sizes. The NCAA places strict limitations on the number of scholarships (except at the Division III level, which has no scholarships) and overall roster spots teams are allotted for each sport, and with schools also bringing in incoming recruiting classes, there’s a chance many programs could be stretched thin.
“I think that’s going to be an issue that varies from school to school,” said Steve Peed, the athletic director and head women’s lacrosse coach at Maine Maritime Academy. “There might be a little bit of a downward push in terms of recruiting, and that could really shake things up.”
Getting an additional year is a positive development for many athletes, but exercising that option isn’t always affordable for the seniors set to graduate. Although seniors on scholarships might revel in the opportunity to return for one more year, doing so would mean an extra year of tuition for non-scholarship athletes.
Such is the dilemma for seniors such as Bagley, who is still deciding between returning to Thomas and accepting a job offer, and fellow 2016 Ellsworth graduate Kate Whitney, who has elected to forgo an extra year with the St. Joseph’s College softball team. It’s also the case at MMA, where Peed said his two seniors aren’t about to put their prospective careers on hold.
“They’re both pretty deep into the job process already,” Peed said. “One has a six-figure job locked down, and the other is interviewing. They’re not going to give that up for a year of lacrosse.”
Even for those who will return, the restoration of eligibility won’t reverse the heartbreak of the 2020 season’s early end. Yet in a situation with few alternatives, the chance to play four full years isn’t something that will be lost on those athletes.
“We wanted to play, obviously, but to know we’re not losing that year is a very, very good feeling,” Wagstaff said. “It’s awesome to know we have the chance to come back with some of the seniors who helped us through this season.”