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College seniors face tough choice after spring athletic season canceled

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Jessica Shields, Emily Borg and Shannon McGee needed some time together to take everything in on March 11.

Loyola softball coach Alicia Abbott had just held a team meeting to inform her players that the NCAA had canceled the rest of spring athletic seasons because of health concerns regarding COVID-19. The World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a global pandemic earlier that day.

Shields (from Huntley), Borg (from Jacobs) and McGee (from Berkshire High School in Chardon, Ohio) were roommates and the Ramblers’ only three seniors. The news that their final year together was over two months prematurely was devastating.

They walked a block across the Loyola campus to the beach along Lake Michigan to reflect.

“Absolute heartbreak,” Shields said. “We sat there and looked at the water. It was pretty hard.”

Borg thought they were there for about 90 minutes.

“We just sat there and took it all in,” she said. “It was cloudy and gloomy, it just kind of fit the mood.”

Two days later, the NCAA announced it would give spring sports athletes another year of eligibility since most had not completed even one-third of their seasons. The NCAA still must work out details regarding scholarships, perhaps lifting the limit for a period since incoming freshmen were set to occupy scholarship spots that some seniors now may not vacate.

And while it is good news that seniors could get another year and enjoy a full season, many already have post-graduation plans and may move on past athletics.

Shields is an economics major set to graduate in May with a job lined up at Zurich Insurance Group in Schaumburg.

“I haven’t even talked to my coaches, I’m still trying to take it all in,” said Shields, who played right field and was leading the Ramblers with a .386 batting average. “A master’s degree wouldn’t do me any good. I’m not sure an extra major would help me. It was nice, but it doesn’t make it right. It puts seniors everywhere in a tough position.”

Borg, a first baseman, was set to graduate with a degree in biology, then take off a year before going to medical school.

“I will consider (playing),” Borg said. “I wasn’t doing anything (next year) anyway. I have to talk it over with my family and see. I would consider getting a master’s or adding a couple minors.

“This is history that we’re living through and a part of. Not positive, but …”

•••

McHenry West graduate Alex Martens was off to a blistering start, as was her Kentucky softball team, before last week’s dire news.

Kentucky, which lost in the Seattle Super Regional last year to Washington, was 20-4. Martens, a senior second baseman, was hitting .507 with nine homers and a team-high 47 RBIs.

Kentucky’s athletic communications and public relations department turned down a request to interview Martens, although she eloquently articulated her feelings last week on a Twitter thread.

Martens started by saying she was happy that spring seniors would be granted another year, but it would not work for many of them. Here are part of those tweets:

“Most likely, more than half of the players who have had their senior year stripped from them already have post graduate commitments secured (jobs, graduate school, etc.). Just because the NCAA is trying to make things right doesn’t mean it will fix the pain so many of us are feeling … I’m so happy for those that will get this extra year and continue playing the sport they loved their whole life. Some seniors, like myself, will not. And my heart hurts for those who will not get the closure that is needed during this time in our lives … Never take a moment on the field for granted.”

•••

Jon Tieman, a 2016 Prairie Ridge graduate and Northwest Herald Baseball Player of the Year that season, had planned to move on to the business world with his degree in finance from Valparaiso. Now, with his senior season finished, he has another option.

“It was definitely a mix of emotions for me,” Tieman said. “I was thinking I had 40 more games to play, then maybe we’d be canceled for a couple weeks, then confusion with what would happen next. I was pretty sad not knowing what was going to happen and thinking I had played with a couple of my teammates for the last time.”

Tieman is back in Crystal Lake now with a lot to think about before he graduates.

“Trying to play as long as possible is something I’d want to do, especially if it could help me toward getting some kind of graduate degree,” Tieman said. “It’d be pretty useful for me to use baseball and prepare myself for the future.”

•••

Grace Beattie, a 2016 Woodstock graduate, is one of the lucky ones.

The Illinois State senior has completed her undergraduate degree in social work, but needs two more years to complete her master’s degree in mental health social work. She is enrolled at ISU for the fall and plans on taking advantage of another year of eligibility to continue her college track career.

Still, Beattie feels the pain of her senior teammates who may not be able to utilize the extra year. Her twin brother, Luke, runs at Utah State and likely is finished with college running since he will graduate. Her boyfriend, Jack Anstey, from Newtown, Toowoomba in Australia, is an All-American in the 1,500 meters, but his season is over.

“It didn’t seem real until Sunday when I was doing my long run,” Beattie said. “I was crying on a park bench, like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m doing this for no purpose.’ It’s weird. Luke’s running career is over. That is so sad. I was sitting with my boyfriend when he received the news. I’ve never seen him so heartbroken.”

Personally, Grace Beattie’s situation is ideal. She redshirted a season of cross country, which runs in the fall, so she has a fall and a spring season to compete in next year while she is attending grad school.

“It’s the best scenario one could ever have,” she said. “How am I so lucky? All my senior friends, it’s over. I have friends who redshirted, but they’re not going to go to school for six years. My heart hurts more for everybody around me because it’s really sad.”

•••

Ethan Routzahn, a 2016 classmate of Tieman’s at Prairie Ridge, is listed as a senior pitcher at St. John’s, although eligibility-wise he is a junior. He drove back from New York this week and will be looking for places to train for two months before reporting to the Kenosha Kingfish of the Northwoods League for summer baseball.

Routzahn sensed what was coming last week.

“We were kind of seeing other sports (leagues) start shutting down before the NCAA really cracked down,” Routzahn said. “It sucked a lot, but it’s the right decision in the interest of public health. It makes sense why it had to happen.”

Routzahn figured he was going back to St. John’s for next year, but he brought his belongings home because he is not sure where he will be living. Now, he needs to find places to lift weights and throw.

“I’ll do training at Fastball USA in Schaumburg whenever it’s open,” Routzahn said. “I’m going to utilize that as much as I can. I’ll lift wherever and find time to throw. The idea is to simulate what I would be doing during the season, what I would have done during a game. Keep that all feeling good. I hope to come into the summer feeling like I would have if I pitched a full season at St. John’s.”

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