Luke Stenzel was finally on approach for his final season of track and field at Emporia State.
After scattering injuries throughout his career and redshirting his outdoor season in the spring of 2019, his final year of graduate school would allow him to return to the track, seeking to build on an already decorated athletics career.
Then came word last week, the NCAA was shutting all spring competitions due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
He didn’t get word right away. He was visiting the Grand Canyon, with his father, in northern Arizona that day, in an area where his phone had scant, if any reception. It wasn’t until on the way home that it started catching back up with a backlog of texts and call attempts that clued him in something was out-of-the-norm.
“I was unplugged,” he said. “I didn’t really know what was going on, I couldn’t make sense of them because guys were asking, “did you see what happened?”
No. He hadn’t.
A few moments of scrolling through Twitter and discovering the NCAA’s announcement. The confusion began to evolve into more disbelief and incredulity.
“It was all over Twitter (and) people were freaking out,” Stenzel said.
The initial announcement was solely stated as the cancelation of “NCAA Spring Championships,” leaving Stenzel hope that there may still be competitions, just oddly without the benefit of any postseason or championship meets.
That hope, too, quickly passed.
He got scant more information from ESU Head Coach Steven Blocker, who was with a quartet of his teammates in Birmingham, Alabama at the time preparing for the Indoor National Championships.
They’d been in the loop longer than Stenzel, but didn’t have much more information to provide other than just a sounding board for the concern, frustration and grief, all of which they were sharing simultaneously from a couple thousands miles apart.
He got to touch base with them on the ride back to the Phoenix area that first evening.
“I was thinking about them and they were thinking about me,” Stenzel said. “There was a lot of love there and it was good to hear from them.”
Fellow senior Taysean Goodwin was attempting to finish his final indoor campaign, but was left hanging on the verge of competing in three events at the national indoor meet.
He had similar aspirations for the outdoor season, so he and Stenzel shared an even deeper sorrow.
“I was living vicariously through Tay in the indoor season,” Stenzel said of keeping up with his track teammates. “I was really excited for him. He’s worked his butt off (and) he was ready. I would never wish that upon him, but it helps knowing the guys were feeling the same way I was.”
While the NCAA has made clear that most spring sport student-athletes would be able to regain a year of eligibility to compete next season because of the extreme circumstances, for Stenzel, this spells the completion of his collegiate journey. He is on pace to finish his MBA (Masters of Business Administration) degree at the end of the spring semester and has a job set in place in the Kansas City area soon after.
“I think it’s great that some people are going to be able to ... come back,” Stenzel said. “For guys like me ... it’s not really applicable. It would be worth it for the time being to run with the guys and get another shot at a championship, but putting my whole life on hold just to run track one more year, it’s not really worth it.”
Stenzel still exits as a six-time All-American and six-time MIAA Champion between his work in the 400-meter run and the 4x400 relay. He also holds the school record in the 600-yard run and is part of the MIAA Championship record-setting 4x400 relay team and a school-record relay.
His fondest memory though? Was a runner up finish in 2018. But ahead of him was Goodwin, right behind was teammate Duke Tibbs as the Hornets swept the top-three in the 400-meter run at the 2018 MIAA Outdoor Championships. All three finished the circuit in less than 48 seconds.
“The first meet we’ve had, maybe ever, that teammates swept the top three,” he said. “That was something we’d had a goal for a long time going into that season, we knew we were going to have a chance at it, but it was going to be tough. Duke went through some injuries that year. It was just a really good memory.”
All from a guy who wasn’t much recruited out of high school, but Emporia State’s proactive pursuit drew his attention.
“We got to go to some cool places, Bradenton, Florida, Birmingham, Alabama, Charlotte, North Carolina,” he said. “Those national meets are awesome, hanging out with the team and competing at the highest level.”
Even a week later, Stenzel had accepted his athletic fate, but continued to seem stunned by all that transpired.
“(Not getting to finish), it sucks for the time being, but it’ll pass,” Stenzel said. “If you get to compete again, if you’re one of those people, just don’t take it for granted. Consider yourself lucky.”