SEGUIN – On Tuesday, March 10, the Ivy League announced that it was cancelling both the men’s and women’s conference basketball tournaments. Then, the spread of cancellations hit Division III programs in the Northeast.
In a span of hours, the coronavirus escalated to pandemic status, shattering the sports landscape. Winter collegiate sports like basketball and swimming saw their championships abruptly canceled, while spring sports decided to cancel the remainder of their seasons altogether.
It was only a matter of time before the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference was next. At Texas Lutheran University, head softball coach Wade Wilson was trying to rationalize a rapidly disappearing schedule and the devastating emotional blow to his players.
“We didn’t think it was possible," Wilson recalled. "It started trickling down, and before you know it, Trinity University and our conference backed out and decided that they were going to cancel all events for the remainder of the semester. We then found out that March 16th was going to be our last competition date, and it all kind of steamrolled from that point on.”
“It was very overwhelming, very sudden and very unexpected," said senior shortstop Cassie Roche. "It was kind of a lot to wrap your head around in the moment. I think at first when we sat down and went over it, it didn’t seem like we were going to be done completely. It seemed like we were going to have some time with each other left.”
The defending NCAA Division III National Champions entered this season primed to repeat. Nine returning seniors had powered the program to a 17-1 start, 3-0 in conference play. A juggernaut offense, dominant pitching and a shutdown defense resulted in a ridiculous 132-23 scoring differential. With 17 regular season games remaining on the schedule, hopes of another deep playoff run lingered in their minds.
That all changed on Wednesday, March 11, when Wilson broke the news to his team that the season was canceled. Months of memories were robbed and replaced with a very sudden goodbye.
“It got emotional really quick," Wilson explained. "When you start putting into perspective the gravity of it with our nine seniors possibly playing their last games, that’s a hard thing to swallow. You feel for them and how they’re possibly having to end their season and their career. It’s a tough deal.”
But the Bulldogs were not done with their season just yet. After some deliberation, TLU announced that their doubleheader with Trinity on Saturday would be played scheduled, providing one last chance for the seniors to finish their careers on a high note.
“I’m very thankful going in there that we knew it was going to be our last game and the last time we were going to be around each other," Roche said. "That made it a little better to grasp and just make the most of it.”
For the second straight season, TLU finished in winning fashion. In what were most likely the final two games played in the entire nation, the Bulldogs swept the Tigers 5-3 and 2-1, earning Wilson his 300th and 301st career wins. As they had always done throughout the last two seasons, the team found a way to win even in the most difficult circumstances.
“It was tough," Roche explained. "We didn’t play as well as we wanted to. We expected to go in there and just dominate, but to end on wins for your last two games is a really awesome thing. We can’t change anything, so we’re just happy with that.”
The current incarnation of the TLU Bulldogs will never play together on Morck Field in Seguin again. That’s a harsh reality for all those involved, but some seniors could return to the team next year. The NCAA is offering another year of eligibility for college athletes in spring sports. There are plenty of financial and housing logistics for each player to consider individually, but the option is enticing nonetheless.
“That’s a lot to think about," Roche said. "Coach Wilson told us that we’re going to have our whole lives to work. What’s another year to see what could happen next year? It’s crazy because it’s a whole year of your life that you’re kind of putting on hold. If we came back, we know we’d be very good again next year still. Regardless, TLU softball is going to be fine.”
Over the course of their four year careers, those nine seniors amassed a 136-18 overall record, 67-1 in SCAC play, and helped claim TLU’s first ever Division III National Championship in any sport. No matter what decisions are made over the next few months, that legacy will remain unblemished as a permanent touchstone of the program for years to come.
“It makes it easier and harder," Wilson said. "We were a really good softball team this year and had a chance to compete again at that level. We wanted to go out and win it again. The other side is that we just won it, and you get to live with that for another year. You can find some peace in there somewhere. Having the chance to play Saturday... I think we can hang on to that. Not a lot of players had that opportunity. Not a lot of coaches had that opportunity.”