Local Catholic college athletes left hanging after suspension of sports activities

A pre-season Horizon League poll tabbed University of Detroit Mercy softball to finish second in the conference, but now all spring sports have been cancelled in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo courtesy of University of Detroit Mercy Sports Information)

LIVONIA — Nearly 500 athletes on the campuses of two local Catholic colleges are struggling to come to grips with the sudden interruption — and in some cases, conclusion — of their playing days, due to the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic.

In hopes of prohibiting further spread of the virus, both the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) announced this week that all remaining winter-season championship competitions were cancelled, along with the entire spring season.

The news has hit student-athletes hard at both the University of Detroit Mercy in Detroit and Madonna University in Livonia — where on-campus classes are already shifting to online mode this week.

“It’s just been a really crazy time; it’s heartbreaking for the teams and groups of kids we’ve had,” said Zach Shore, sports information director at Madonna, an NAIA member institution. “It’s already been an incredible year based on what we’ve accomplished, but disappointing that we won’t get a chance to see it through to its natural completion.

“You’re going to be stuck wondering, ‘What-if?’” Shore said.

The turn of events was just as grim for NCAA member University of Detroit Mercy.

“The most difficult thing is just not playing, to be honest with you,” UDM sports information director P.J. Gradowski said. “Student-athlete wise, coach wise, (athletic department) staff wise, our whole world revolves around athletics. The worst thing is we don’t know what we don’t know. In two or three weeks, are things are going to be better or are they going to be worse? It’s all crazy.”

Madonna University's women's lacrosse team got off to the best start in program history, winning four of its five games, before its season was suspended. (Photo courtesy of Madonna University Athletics)

NAIA officials first released a statement back on March 3 saying the organization was “cognizant of the threat that the coronavirus could bring to the health and safety of all involved at these (athletic) events” and directed followers to resources provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Four days later, the NAIA said “we do not believe cancellation or public spacing is warranted for our championships,” but as the number of reported cases escalated and professional sports leagues suspended their seasons, the college organization eventually followed suit, cancelling all winter championships as of March 12, and all spring sports as of Monday.

All winter sports at Madonna had concluded, with the exception of bowling, where both the men’s and women’s teams were preparing to compete at the NAIA National Championship tournament, scheduled for March 27-29 in Topeka, Kan. It was the first time the Crusaders women’s team — which earlier won the Wolverine-Hoosier Athletic Conference championship — was a national qualifier.

Madonna was also having a strong spring season. Although its golf and track teams had not yet competed, several other sports were doing well.

“Women’s lacrosse was one win away from a program record, baseball was starting to turn corner a little bit, and softball was off to a great start,” Shore said.

The NCAA, meanwhile, cancelled all remaining winter and spring championships, including the popular “March Madness” basketball tournament, on March 12, saying in a prepared statement that “this decision is based on the evolving COVID-19 public health threat” and the organization’s “ability to ensure the events to do not contribute to the spread of the pandemic.”

On Monday, Detroit Mercy’s primary conference, the Horizon League, announced it was cancelling all spring sports activities. Initially, UDM was suspending all athletic-related activities until March 31, but adjusted its stance to be consistent with the Horizon League’s decision. Also affected were the men’s lacrosse team, which plays in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, and the women’s lacrosse, which plays in the Southern Conference.

UDM had wrapped up all of its winter sports, and although some of its spring teams were struggling record-wise, the cancellations still hit the teams hard, Gradowski said.

There is a potential silver lining amidst the pandemic. The NAIA voted to grant athletes affected by the suspensions an extra year of eligibility. The NCAA’s Board of Governors was set to vote on a similar proposal. 

“There are all these other moving pieces that we don’t have yet; it’s hard to come to grips with everything,” Shore said. “We’ll be back, things will eventually clear up, we’ll pick up the pieces and move on from there. It will be interesting to see what the landscape looks like in the future.”