Matthew Shealy

(Rock Hill, S.C.) – The Winthrop University softball team is one of countless collegiate sports teams across the country that saw its season end early due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The NCAA announced the cancelation of all spring championships on March 12, but with the fate of regular season games and conference championships in the hands of conference commissioners, many athletes still hoped their seasons were not completely over.

Ashley Westbrooks, a senior on Winthrop’s softball team, said she and her teammates tried to remain positive when they first heard the news.

“The whole time we were sitting there (telling ourselves) ‘We’re going to come back – they’re just going to let this week happen or however long it is and then you’re going to come back soon,’” said Westbrooks, who appeared on the Palmetto Report podcast. “It just never happened.”

The Big South released a statement on March 18 declaring that all regular season and post season contests would be canceled for the remainder of the 2019-20 season.

Westbrooks, who was one of six seniors on the softball team this year, said she and her teammates were overwhelmed with disappointment.

“We all were ready to get back to where we were last year and we weren’t even given the chance,” Westbrooks said. “It’s just been such a huge part of our life for so long, we just didn’t even know how to react at the time.”

A number of athletes at Winthrop took to Twitter to express their feelings.

“Honestly? I’m devastated my final year in athletics is being taken away from me due to a pandemic like this. 100 (percent) think it’s the right call, just sucks man,” tweeted Thad Harris, a senior pitcher on the baseball team.

“I’m devastated. These girls are my sisters. This is my family. This team and this year will always hold a special place in my heart,” tweeted Ansley Gilreath, a senior member of the softball team.

“Never take anything for granted. When someone says ‘play every game like it’s your last,’ think of us seniors,” she said.

The cancelation of spring sports came on the heels of the NCAA’s decision not to hold its men’s or women’s Division I basketball tournaments.

This was difficult for the Winthrop men’s basketball team, which had already earned a spot in the NCAA tournament by winning the Big South Conference championship.

“We gave our guys a couple days off (after the conference championship game) to recoup – mentally, physically – and then we got back to practice,” said Pat Kelsey, head men’s basketball coach, in an interview with Eagle Air radio in April.

Kelsey said the day after the team’s first practice, they “started hearing the whispers getting louder and louder” about the chance of the tournament being canceled, and he could tell his players were concerned.

“We decided just to meet and not even practice that day,” Kelsey said.

He said he told the team that one of three things would happen; either they would play the tournament like normal, they would play with no fans in attendance, or they would not get to play at all.

Kelsey said he also told his guys that he believed a complete cancelation was the least likely, and that the worst-case scenario he envisioned was playing without fans.

“You could just tell they were still disappointed because there’s nothing like the excitement for an NCAA Tournament game,” he said. “Lo and behold – soon as they had left the meeting – 45 minutes later they canceled the tournament.

“The seniors, Josh Ferguson and Hunter Hale, I think were the ones that took it the hardest because it was their last chance to play in the NCAA Tournament,” Kelsey said.

While the collegiate careers of basketball seniors may be over, seniors who play spring sports are getting the opportunity to play one more season.

The NCAA announced on March 30 that Division I spring-sport athletes will receive an additional season of competition eligibility.

Westbrooks said she plans to take advantage of the extra eligibility and return to Winthrop for the 2020-21 season.

“After many conversations with my family and praying about it a lot, I decided that I’m not ready to be done with softball,” Westbrooks said. “I am getting old, but what’s one more year?”

Westbrooks said that while two of the other five seniors on the softball team have already made job and graduate school commitments, the other three intend to return to Winthrop next season as well.

Two other notable Eagles who will be back for a fifth year are Spencer Yankle and Scout McFalls, members of the baseball team.

The two were recently recognized in the D1Baseball end-of-season power rankings as being the 28th best catcher and the 75th best outfielder in Division I baseball, respectively.

While this season did not end well, many seniors will be looking forward to next spring and one more opportunity to compete.

As for Westbrooks, she said she believes the softball team will be successful in reaching the Big South championship like it did during the 2018-19 season.

“With the team that we have and the team chemistry that we have, I think it’ll be something, not easy, and obviously we’ll have to work hard, but it’s something that we can get to without a doubt,” said Westbrooks.