UCF Spring Seasons Endure Strange, Frustrating Endings

To everything (turn, turn, turn)
There is a season (turn, turn, turn)
And a time to every purpose, under heaven
    --from "Turn! Turn! Turn!" by The Byrds, 1965

UCF baseball coach Greg Lovelady has been a collegiate head coach long enough to understand how it normally ends.
Most of the time the finality arrives after a loss, whether it's in a conference tournament or the NCAA Championship.
It often comes with a team meeting in the outfield—and it occurs with Lovelady reminding the group that that moment is likely the last time that exact group of individuals will be together.
That sort of season-ending moment didn't happen for Lovelady and his Knights in 2020—and the UCF coach feels badly about it.
"It was all just taken from us," he says. "It just magnified the feeling of loss and despair. This is a great group of kids that changed the culture of the program.
"It's tough not to say good-bye and thank them. The hugs and emotions aren't there the way this played out."
It's just one of the manifestations of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that has affected athletic programs everywhere. It's a silent and potentially deadly virus that has spread a closing veil over college athletics seasons across the land.
Lovelady has experienced so many emotions—in a week unlike anything anyone has seen—that he has no idea where all this goes. Every time he and his staff have another meeting and create a game plan, the world tilts sideways yet again.
It's no different for the other UCF spring sport teams--their players and coaches and support staff. And there's maybe even more of a feeling of disappointment given the great starts that so many of the Knights were enjoying.
Lovelady's baseball team (15-3) stood eighth in the last RPI numbers for college baseball. Cindy Ball-Malone's UCF softball team (21-5-1) was seventh in the initial RPI for her sport. The Knights' tennis teams both were off to top-25 10-3 starts—each with its own list of wins over ranked opponents. The UCF golf and rowing squads all had their share of early bright moments. The track and field team had yet to begin its outdoor slate.
UCF finished a best-in-school history 29th in the NACDA Directors' Cup all-sports standings through the fall seasons—and it's safe to say the combined start of Knight spring campaigns marked the most noteworthy in the record book.
Now it's all gone—seasons left unfinished and players and coaches left unfulfilled.
With competitions and practices canceled and classes and work happening remotely, Lovelady, Ball-Malone and the rest of UCF's coaches aren't sure when they'll see their players again or when practice and games will qualify as routine.
The final act for Lovelady's team came last Wednesday in a 3-2 home loss to fifth-ranked Miami in front of 2,454 spectators at John Euliano Park. The UCF head coach was driving home when he heard the NBA had canceled its season.

"I knew that was going to start a ripple effect," he says. "I got home and watched them leave one NBA game that did not start and you knew that wasn't a good sign."

By the next afternoon the College World Series had been scratched, along with all remaining winter and spring NCAA Championships. Next came online classes and working at home—with both at UCF moving from temporary to at least semester-long. And it soon became official that both practices and contests for these 2020 spring seasons, are done.
After UCF's weekend series with Yale was canceled when the Ivy League suspended competition, Lovelady had given his team the weekend off. He had no idea then how close the end of his own team's season was.
"In the beginning you hoped that maybe it was going to be a couple of weeks and then we'll come back to play and move on with our lives," he says. "Then on Thursday I was driving and one of my assistants texted me that the College World Series had been canceled. That was a game-changer. It snowballed and got progressively worse day by day."
It has been a glut of emotions for Lovelady—amid the practical ramifications of trying to help his players deal with world realities that change with the snap of fingers.
"We've communicated with our players through the apps we use," he says. "I've filmed some messages that we've shared with the team.
"We thought maybe we would still come back Monday and practice and yet you did not really want to come back and just go through the motions. You're not really sure what you're practicing for. Are we training for the (MLB) draft and summer ball? Are we going to have games later in the year?
"By now, I haven't called all the players, but I've talked to most of them, especially the older guys. Every time I put out a message I call the seniors immediately to check their reactions and see if they are doing okay. All the assistants have been doing the same thing with their position guys. Eventually I'll talk to them all.

"There are just so many unanswered questions for all of them. There's no playbook for this. We don't have an end date. There's no absolute light at the end of the tunnel when we can do this or do that. So it's hard to give much guidance."

Lovelady and his staff are trying to make sure their players are set up for various summer baseball options. Yet they don't know if they'll be able to help their players prepare or if that prep will have to be handled individually by team members.
"We've met every day since this happened and then something happens in the next hour that totally blows up that plan," says the UCF head coach.
"We'll try to let the dust settle and then try to see what the long-term prognosis looks like, not just for us but for the whole world and all of college athletics."
Lovelady says the prospect of players receiving another year of eligibility creates lots of uncertainty. Some of his senior players already are prepared to move on with their lives beyond baseball. With many of his players on partial scholarships, there's no roadmap as yet on how additional eligibility would work financially.
"No one got the send-off they deserved and now some of them are thinking, 'Now what do I do? Do I graduate? Do I figure out how to get a master's degree? And, if I want to come back and play, what does this mean financially for my family?'

"And we have no answers for them right now. The fluidity is tough. We can't turn the page because we have no idea what our roster will look like."

In some ways, dealing with the day-to-day changes in reality have kept Lovelady from brooding too much over the disappointment of the lost season—and the dreams of what might have been.
"Our guys are just crushed," he says.
"You set off on a mission, and we'd put ourselves in a position that was extremely positive.
"We preach about leaving their legacy here and leaving the program better—doing things that no one else had done. They really bought into it. They wanted to do something special, something different.
"If you drew it up, they had followed all the steps of what we wanted to do. We put ourselves in position to control our own destiny in terms of winning a conference championship and hosting an NCAA regional. The trajectory of the program was maybe even bigger than what they thought it could be.
"The comment I heard was, 'I really thought this was going to be the year.'"
The rest of UCF's spring sport coaches are feeling similar emotions, frustrations and disappointments.
In the middle of spring break at UCF, Ball-Malone and her softball team were on their way from California to a weekend series at Ole Miss when travel plans changed.
"On our trip we were probably playing the best softball I've seen since I've been here," she says.

"Everyone gets it from a health standpoint--it's bigger than the game. But the extremely sad part of it is that there are some seniors that are not going to be able to finish out their careers. They played a huge role in what we did here and what we did this season.

"We're going to do something more official once we can all come back, but our team got together on its own for one last shindig and they all wore their TEAM FIRST shirts--these are T-shirts with our five core values on them.
"That's what defines this group and why they were so successful. Our senior leadership was something I haven't seen in a long time."
The five seniors on the 2020 squad sent a photo of themselves to Ball-Malone with those TEAM FIRST shirts on display.
 The UCF softball players held one final gathering after the
coronavirus crisis ended their 2020 season—and the five seniors
(left to right, Kyra Klarkowski, Aubrey Johnson, Jazmine Esparza,
Alea White and Kiana East) sent this memory of that event to
their head coach, Cindy Ball-Malone.

"For them to do that on their own, it really meant something to me in terms of our culture," she says. "I think it's going to last.
"We tell our players you never know when it's going to be your last game, your last at-bat, your last pitch.
"We got back to Orlando at midnight and it turned out to be our last meeting."
Like with the baseball squad, Ball-Malone expects some seniors to have interest in a potential extra year of eligibility, while others already are committed to graduate school.
The legacies of all the abbreviated UCF seasons likely will come with asterisks:
--The baseball team's start marked the second-best at UCF (behind only 2008 with its 17-1 opening), with a ranking as high as 12th (by four of the six national polls), best since sixth in 2015; the UCF pitching staff finished with a 2.17 ERA (ninth in the country); Jeff Hakanson led the country with six saves; with four victories, Jack Sinclair paced the nation in wins.
--The 16-2 softball start was best in program annals, including an 11-game winning streak; the Knights posted a 6-5-1 record against ranked opponents or those receiving votes (9-4-1 record against Power6 teams); the Knights were as high as No. 22 in the last NFCA/USA Today and ESPN/USA softball polls.
--The women's tennis team climbed as high as 12th in the Oracle/ITA team rankings, tops in program history, thanks to Power6 wins versus Utah, No. 18 Texas A&M, TCU, Nebraska and No. 22 Baylor; newcomer Evgeniya Levashova won three conference player-of-the-week honors, most by any UCF player in a single season; for the first time in program history four singles players and three doubles teams were ranked at once.
--The men's tennis squad enjoyed its best start to a dual match season since 2003 (the year of the team's first conference title), with an eight-match win streak to finish; the Knights climbed as high as No. 22 in the Oracle/ITA team rankings, highest in program history; UCF posted wins against Virginia, Illinois, No. 20 Texas Tech and No. 24 San Diego; Gabriel Decamps and Juan Pablo Grassi Mazzuchi each won three conference player-of-the-week awards; Decamps ranked as high as the nation's No. 7 singles player--Decamps and Grassi Mazzuchi ended the spring ranked as the No. 7 doubles tandem in the nation.
--The rowing team won its only spring regatta (sweeping the Metro Cup), but that program has been a consistent NCAA Championship qualifier—with five straight top-20 finishes (18th in 2019).
--Men's golf competed in only two spring events; that squad's top accomplishment was winning the Tavistock Collegiate Invitational in October by 14 shots; the Knights were ranked 16th in the poll following that win.
--The women's golf squad had played three spring invitationals, ranking as high as 13th in the fall and ending the shortened spring season at 39th (second in the AAC behind #31 Houston); freshman Tunrada Piddon earned her second college victory at the Lady Gator Invitational. Piddon, Alyssa Lamoureux and Elizabeth Moon were all ranked in the top 10 in the AAC when the season ended.
--The women's track and field team had yet to begin its outdoor season, with a young squad that saw 10 of 18 individuals competing at their first AAC Indoor Championship in 2020; nearly every team member set a personal best during the indoor campaign.
As much as all the UCF coaches and players understand the scary magnitude of the coronavirus, they can't help wondering what their 2020 seasons ultimately might have wrought.
"This did not end with a crushing defeat," says Lovelady.
"And there's nothing to move on to. You don't feel like you got a fair chance.
"It (stinks)."
Reality says sports for now is not a priority.
Lovelady, Ball-Malone and their colleagues can only guess when that will change.