Decked out in black and gold practice uniforms, on board a packed bus headed to a practice gym in Warrensburg, Missouri, the Emporia State women’s basketball team was anxious to play.
It was March 12, 2020. The Division-II women’s basketball tournament was 24 hours away. The number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States hung around 1,600.
The Hornets had gone 24-7 during the regular season, steadily improving from October to March. Led by a group of upperclassmen, ESU stormed through conference play, and as the win total grew, so did the team’s chemistry.
“I’ve never been a part of a team that meshed as well as we did.” said forward Daley Handy. Lining the rows of the bus was a group of players with high aspirations and plenty of reason to hold them, and following a run to the MIAA Championship title game, the Hornets were eager for their first-round meeting with Southeastern Oklahoma.
But as the bus rolled toward the practice facility, the inevitable became reality. Stomachs sank and confusion coursed up and down the aisles as the Hornets learned that the tournament they were preparing for was on hold due to COVID-19. Whether they knew it at the time or not, ESU’s season was over.
“We’ll never know how things could have ended,” Handy said. “It felt like we missed out on a really big opportunity there. We got cheated out of that opportunity, honestly.”
Everyone was somewhere when COVID-19 put the world on hold. Handy and the Hornets were in Warrensburg. Taysean Goodwin, a 12-time All-American track and field athlete, was in Birmingham, Alabama preparing for the NCAA Championships. Most of ESU’s athletes were on campus or at home on spring break when the severity of the virus and the realities that arrived with it set in.
Everyone lost something — if not someone — in the days, weeks and months that followed, too. Since March, athletes at ESU have seen their collegiate careers disrupted as COVID-19 continues to ravage the nation. Some have had seasons cut short or cancelled altogether. Others have seen eligibility thrown into flux. An outbreak on campus in September prompted a two-week shutdown of athletic activities and nearly jeopardized it all.
The teams on ESU’s campus are inching toward returning to competition this fall. The MIAA has given the green light to winter and spring sports, even offering football teams an option to play in early 2021. But as the school’s athletes make their way back onto the field, the rollercoaster of the past eight months and the wounds it has developed remain.
“I thought it was the end for me for college,” Goodwin said. “It still really hurts that it had to end like that.”
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For the first time in his life this fall, Hayden Reed is something he’s never been before. ESU’s redshirt junior offensive is just a student.
“I’ve never just gone to class and called it a day.” Reed said. “I’ve always had so many other things to do with football. It was fun, for maybe a couple of days to be a regular student. Then I was bored. I realized how badly I needed football.”
When Reed and his teammates returned to campus during the summer, they trained and practiced under the expectation of playing a fall football season. Those hopes were dashed quickly when the MIAA suspended fall sports on Aug. 14.
There was a cutting silence among the football team in the meeting room where the news was delivered. “I haven’t not played a football season since second-grade,” Reed said. “It was hard hearing that you’re not playing at all this fall.”
It took a few days for him to fully process the reality.
As Reed and his teammates have adjusted to just being students, football has slowly returned in small ways.
The Hornets are back in the weight room, wearing masks, staying distanced and wiping down every machine and dumbbell. Position group meetings are back on, too, and ESU is back on the practice field. But as nearby programs such as Missouri Western and Pittsburg State have made the decision to play this fall, the Hornets are continuing their work without a game on the schedule for nearly another year.
Without games to play or a conference title to chase, Reed and his teammates have had to search for new reasons to wake up and return to the team facility each day. Finding the drive on the practice field or in the weight room becomes harder when the usual motivating factors are nowhere to be found, and every one of head coach Garin Higgins’ players has had to dig deeper this fall.
For Reed, his cause has been the Hornets’ class of freshmen that joined the roster this summer. Arriving to campus in the midst of a pandemic, nothing has been conventional for the newcomers. Integrating into the team without the structure of a season, the freshmen have been left somewhat in lurch, and veterans such as Reed have been trying to help ease the transition.
While some of that leadership comes on the field or in meeting rooms, much of it happens away from the team facility, outside of the 15-20 hours a week spent on football. Some of it’s as simple as taking the freshman out for a meal and getting them away from the confines of the dorms or playing video games in an apartment, anything to make things feel normal.
“They haven’t had a normal day of college yet,” Reed said. “I came in, fall camp, great season, it was normal life. For them, nothing’s been normal. So we’re trying to keep it somewhat normal for them, help them through this as best we can.”
And for Reed, it’s as much about helping the freshman as it is continuing to find ways to serve the team as a leader and an upperclassmen.
Reed and the rest of the Hornets will continue to work this fall with little on the horizon. An MIAA update earlier this month offered football programs the opportunity to play this spring. ESU is exploring its options, but a team spokesperson indicated the Hornets won’t be playing official games until the fall of 2021.
Until then, ESU will practice, train and wait.
“You can look ahead, but if you do, you’re looking a year in advance,” Reed said. “So we’re focused on the now. Sometimes, that can be really difficult.”
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Taysean Goodwin’s mantle is filled with trophies and medals. During his time at ESU, he’s won three MIAA titles. He’s been named All-American 12 times and owns five school records and counting. To call Goodwin the best sprinter at ESU is not hyperbolic, and last spring, the senior track and field star was looking to add one more title to his collection.
Like the women’s basketball team in Warrensburg, Goodwin and the rest of the qualifying members of ESU’s track and field program were in Birmingham in the midst of preparation for the indoor track and field championships when the season came to a sudden end in March.
Goodwin sensed everything crumbling down as soon as he saw the NBA postpone its season. It didn’t take long for the NCAA to follow suit. Goodwin, hours from competing in the final indoor races of his college career, was lying on a hotel bed when he learned the news. Minutes later, he found himself consoling teammates, himself grappling with a dream lost and what he believed to be the end of his college career.
“I was pretty hurt, I’m not going to lie,” Goodwin said. “I accomplished everything I needed to and wanted to until that point. I wanted to be a national champion and I didn’t get to hit that one and it hurt.”
When the Hornets returned from Birmingham, Goodwin went home to Blue Springs, Missouri and waited. And waited. And waited some more.
With so many of its sports canceled in-season, the NCAA spent the spring sorting out the issue of eligibility and whether or not seniors such as Goodwin could return for another year. The decision hung in the balance all spring and over Goodwin’s head, too. When the NCAA ruled in favor of extending eligibility to seniors like him, Goodwin got the update scrolling through Twitter. He and his mother danced in their kitchen. Goodwin was going to get another shot at his dream.
Back on campus for one more year, Goodwin is once again working towards his goal. His eligibility is only for the outdoor track season, which means he won’t compete until the spring. But the chance he lost last spring is back in his hands, and Goodwin is ready to chase it with the opportunity he was sure he might never get again.
“I didn’t think I was going to get this back,” Goodwin said. “I just prayed about it and it came about where I could get it back and show what I can do for one more season. My goal is the national championship. That’s what I want. That’s what I really want.”
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With practice in full swing inside the HPER Building at ESU, Handy and the women’s basketball team is a long way from that bus in Warrensburg. The pain of last spring remains, but hope and basketball in the near future are in reach. Regular season basketball is on, the product of a decision made by the MIAA on Oct. 2, and the Hornets will tip-off on Nov. 19 at Nebraska-Kearney.
In the months that followed the incomplete 2019-20 season, Handy was home in Wichita. Without access to the facilities at ESU, she trained outdoors, put up shots at local parks and got into nearby gyms anytime she could, doing everything to be ready for a season she wasn’t sure would even come. Even now, the upcoming season is only so certain; it could be taken away at any moment.
After last spring, Handy knows nothing is a given.
Some days, Handy still thinks back to the bus in Warrensburg. The feelings are just as fresh now as they were then when the Hornets had their season evaporate as it was just about to peak. But more often, in practice or the weight room inside the facility, Handy closes her eyes and imagines being back on the court in a real, competitive game.
She pictures the bright lights and the cheering crowd inside White Auditorium. She tries to remember what the intensity of an MIAA basketball game feels like, and runs through the emotion of what sinking her first basket of the season — her first since last March — might feel like.
There’s plenty of pain and loss in the past, but Handy, like so many Hornets, is focused on the future, even if she doesn’t know what it might hold.
“There might not be a lot of fans,” Handy said. “There might not even be that many games. But we’re going to play like we don’t know what tomorrow might bring, because we really don’t.”