Late morning, Thursday, March 12.
Winter was fading, the first day of spring only a week away.
Louisiana Tech’s Lady Techsters basketball team had won its opening game of the Conference USA postseason tournament in Frisco, Texas and was only moments away from playing in the Round Two.
The Dunkin’ Dogs were in Frisco too, and were preparing to play their first game that night as the odds-on favorite to win the tournament and advance to the NCAA Tournament.
Baseball coaches were hitting fungoes at practice, getting the team ready to board a bus the next day to open the C-USA season in Jackson, Mississippi.
Softball, 24 games into its season, was preparing for its first home games of the spring, Friday-Saturday-Sunday against UTSA.
But in a blink the bats went silent, and the lights went out.
Cell phones started ringing in coaches’ pockets and PA systems began carrying hastily prepared statements in coliseums, each a pronouncement that this would be the start — and the end — of a very different kind of March Madness.
The evolving threat of COVID-19 to global public health cancelled everything. Goodbye tennis and golf and track and field. Goodbye bowling sectionals and championships.
Goodbye, spring sports.
Tech football head coach Skip Holtz echoed what most other coaches were experiencing in the early days of the pandemic. One day he was preparing to begin spring practice, and by April, a man used to being on the go hadn’t seen the first live snap and was getting three weeks to the gallon.
“I’d never heard of Zoom, and now I’m on Zoom calls 12 hours a day,” he said. “We’re finding lots of new ways to get things done.”
The brakes were slammed on that Thursday, but the car was still skidding through Friday the 13th. Seasons were up in the air. The word from administrations throughout the NCAA was to go home, sit tight, and await word.
Then came Saturday, March 14. Tech baseball coach Lane Burroughs, who was supposed to be with his team in Jackson, was eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich at his home when the crawl on ESPN read that the College World Series, scheduled for mid-June, had been cancelled.
“After that,” he said, “I sort of figured we were in trouble.”
Everything ended. The games. The practices. Everything we were used to in spring sports was gone.
That fateful Thursday in Frisco, the Lady Techsters left the court in uniform but without playing the game. Instead, it was back to the locker room and back to Ruston.
“Hard to have appreciation when you haven’t had adversity,” Lady Techsters head coach Brooke Stoehr said. “I didn’t know how good we had it; maybe none of us did.”
Dunkin’ Dogs coach Eric Konkol had to tell his team at the hotel. Later that night when they were supposed to be playing, they were already back in Ruston.
“Tough conversation to have,” he said. “Most difficult speech I’ve ever had to give. I’ve never even imagined ending a season like that.”
Like football, soccer plays its regular season in the fall. But spring is filled with exhibition games and lots of community service work, much of it involving clinics with youngsters. All that was wiped out.
“I’ve tried to keep in touch with the team and keep them updated on the progress of the building of the new facility and helping them with any needs or questions they may have,” said soccer coach Kevin Sherry. “The team has been in constant communication with each other via social media, which lets them know they are not alone and can get through this together. It is a relief to know that most of the players are at home with their families in a safe environment.”
Communication has been the key to some sense of sanity and normalcy among these groups of student-athletes who are used to spending so much time together.
“We tell our players all the time that communication is a weapon,” said Burroughs, whose “new hobby is Zooming” and who didn’t even know his family had Netflix until the shutdown. “In life, a relationship breakdown in communication is a breakdown in trust. We couldn’t control the story last spring (the tornado that destroyed the baseball, softball and soccer complexes in April 2019), and we can’t control the virus. But we can control our communication with each other. We had a Zoom meeting with the team when spring exams started, and we’ve told guys to just try to break a sweat every day, to move, to have a routine. Stay positive and keep communicating as best we can.”
“The two things we’ve missed most is structure and the brotherhood,” Holtz said. “Everybody’s got to build their own structure while we aren’t face-to-face; structure is a huge part of the success we’ve been able to have (six consecutive bowl wins, tops in the nation). As far as brotherhood, when we have Zoom calls, the first 10 minutes is just everybody jabbing at each other. This pandemic is making each of us fight individually, and we’re in a team game. So our motto is Win Today.”
Those are some of the negatives. Here are some others.
“I tried to grow a beard for about three weeks,” Konkol said. “That didn’t work out so well.”
“I’ve enjoyed being a fulltime mom,” said Stoehr, mother of elementary-aged Aubrey and Cooper. “It’s been great for us as young parents. But I don’t think they like the way I cook — and they’ve confirmed that for me.”
Recruiting, something coaches do basically every day, is another part of athletics that’s changed dramatically.
“You can’t really show recruits the family atmosphere and what Ruston’s all about,” Holtz said.
“We’ve been recruiting a lot at home on group calls with recruits and their families,” Stoehr said. “We can’t bring students to campus, so through virtual tours, we have to take the campus to them.”
“I’ve been using the time to look at more and more recruiting videos because recruiting has become more and more virtual due to the extended ‘dead period’ with no in-person recruiting opportunities available to evaluate players in games,” Sherry said. “I receive on average 15 videos a day to evaluate.”
On the other hand, the biggest upside, at least for coaches, has been the time with their families.
“The time with (wife) Meagan and our two boys (Ethan and Ryan),” Konkol said, “that’s been the positive. And we’re still recruiting and scheduling games and planning for next year. Our glass is half full; we keep pushing forward.”
“The opportunity to be with my wife and our three children during this time has been rewarding,” Holtz said. “We’ve had dinner together most every night. During spring practice, that seldom happens.”
Besides the virtual meetings with their players, updates on drills and workouts, and check-ins with student-athletes and their academic advisors, coaches have caught up in some areas and re-evaluated in others.
“I’ve used some of the time to devise the training and playing structure of the team for when the season restarts,” Sherry said. “I’ve written down drills to use and have collated all the thousands of training drills I had previously written on napkins and scrap pieces of paper over the years. This was a fun exercise and will ensure we are fully prepared for next season with both a training plan and game plan. The task has motivated me to use these drills as the basis for a book I’ve been writing which I hope will get published in the near future.”
“This ‘slow down’ has forced us to be more intentional and purposeful in what we do,” Stoehr said. “I’ve realized there’s a lot of clutter in my life that distracts me from what’s important. As a staff we thought we were organized before; we need to re-organize and focus on how we can be better with our players, how we all can become better humans and better student-athletes. Maybe that doesn’t necessarily translate to 12- and 14-hour days at the office.”
“Times like these make you value the things you’ve had even more, times you’ve had together with your team and with your family,” Konkol said. “Maybe it’s not so bad to step away awhile. Times like this call on you to be resourceful; we call it ‘Winning the Wait.’ Meanwhile we’ll stay engaged so it will at least feel like we’re together.”
“I tell our guys that what happens in the dark will come to light,” Holtz said. “I think we’ll play football this fall, and if a guy hasn’t been doing his work at home, it’s going to show up pretty fast once we’re together as a team.”
‘Once we’re together as a team …’ That’s the moving target, not just for Tech football or Tech athletics, but for the entire NCAA. Various plans are in place nationally, but no one has ever before dealt with a situation more fluid than this global pandemic, and no one has a crystal ball.
“Another positive thing is that we’re all dealing with the same situation,” Holtz said. “Very few teams had any (spring football) practice at all. We’re all dealing with the same unknowns.”