EDITOR’S NOTE: This is another installment in our ‘Lost Season’ series, which documents how student-athletes adjusted to their seasons being cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic
Something was brewing.
Zack Anderson knew it. His four teammates knew it. His coach knew it. Everyone knew it.
It was Thursday, March 12, and Anderson and his four University of South Dakota teammates were practicing their respective events in Albuquerque, New Mexico, ahead of the NCAA Indoor Track & Field Championships which were scheduled to begin the following day.
A dark cloud was hanging over the event, however.
Could the coronavirus — which had just started becoming national news at that time — seriously impact the meet?
“My first thought was, ‘We’re all going to be here, so they’ll do the meet,’” USD head coach Lucky Huber said.
Anderson, a senior from Parker who was gearing up for his fourth national meet, was feeling confident. Earlier in the season, he had tied his own school record in the high jump (7 feet, 3 ¾) to tie for ninth nationally heading into the meet.
He was primed for a big weekend.
“I remember things were going well,” Anderson said.
“You’re always aware of how other things might affect how you’re going to compete, but after that practice, I thought, ‘This was too perfect to be true.’”
As it turns out, he was right.
While his five qualified athletes practiced, Huber got the news: The meet was called off due to the coronavirus threat.
“I was shocked,” he said. “I had to sit down for a minute. I remember thinking, ‘How do I explain this to my kids?’”
The veteran coach had to find a way to inform Brithton Senior (men’s 60-meter hurdles), Chris Nilsen (men’s pole vault), Ethan Bray (men’s pole vault), Helen Falda (women’s pole vault) and Anderson that they wouldn’t have a chance to compete on the national stage.
The disappointment was understandably immediate.
“You spent the last 365 days waiting for that shot,” Anderson said.
That same night of the news, the USD contingent had dinner together and flew back to South Dakota the following day, but for Huber, his role became more than coach.
“At that point, my job was to console the athletes,” he said. “I had to explain to them that something bigger is going on and that life will go on.”
The benefit of two months since the meet was cancelled has provided that kind of perspective for the athletes, but it’s still hard to swallow, according to Anderson.
“It was devastating,” he said. “It impacted me a lot more than I thought it would.
“It’s still hard to comprehend; I can’t believe it.”
The bad news didn’t end there, though. It became obvious at the time that spring sports could also be impacted.
As Holly Gerberding, another USD track athlete, put it, things were snowballing.
“You just try to hold on to any kind of hope,” said Gerberding, a junior multi-event standout from Sturgis. “I think eventually you knew it was coming, but you just didn’t want to accept it.”
While her five teammates were down in New Mexico, Gerberding — the Summit League indoor champion in the pentathlon — was visiting a friend in Oregon during spring break. Gerberding’s parents eventually encouraged her to return home, so she made a quick pit stop in Vermillion to gather up her things and then drove to Sturgis.
In short order, it was announced that the spring sports seasons wouldn’t take place, which meant other track athletes like Anderson and Gerberding wouldn’t get a chance to compete in the outdoor season.
What Could Have Been
The trip to Albuquerque could very well have resulted in history for the USD track and field program.
Not only were the five qualifiers the most USD had ever sent to an indoor national meet, Nilsen was the favorite to win the pole vault championship. The three-time champion and Summit League Indoor Field Athlete of the Year, Nilsen broke the NCAA indoor record this season (19 feet, 5 ½ inches).
Along with Anderson, Bray and Senior, there was an outside chance the Coyotes could’ve cracked the top-10 in the men’s team standings.
“It’s only a track meet, but to these kids, it was their world,” Huber said.
And for every member of the USD rosters, their world completely changed when the remainder of the semester at USD went online and the spring sports seasons were cancelled.
They lost the daily connection with their teammates and peers, as well as the connections with their coaches. For Gerberding, a multi-event track athlete, that last part is especially crucial.
“I’m used to seeing them every day,” she said. “They’re my mentors; almost like your parents at school.”
Particularly disappointing for the USD athletes this spring was a missed opportunity to compete in their conference meet at their home complex: The Summit League Outdoor Championships were supposed to be held in Vermillion on May 14-16.
That meant athletes like Anderson and Gerberding would have been competing in front of family and friends who could have easily made the trip to Vermillion.
“That was the closest meet for them,” Gerberding said. “Even my friends at school would say, ‘I can actually come to your conference meet.’
“This would’ve been an incredible experience. It would’ve been so fun.”
It’s been a missed opportunity that has stuck with Anderson, he said.
“I definitely wish I could’ve put my high jump spikes on and jumped at conference, but it is what it is,” added Anderson, who will return for a final outdoor season next year — he will be student teaching at an elementary school in Sioux Falls during the first semester.
Gerberding’s spring was supposed to be hectic.
Between her track workouts and competitions, as well as her academic course load, there wasn’t going to be much time for anything else. She did, however, need to find time to study for her Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) in June.
Maybe that’s where the pandemic has provided her with a silver lining, according to Gerberding.
“I was probably naïve to think when I was planning everything with track and school that I’d have that kind of time, but now I have a lot more time to study,” she said.
While it certainly wasn’t in the original plans to suddenly have a national meet and an ensuing outdoor season taken away from the, the USD athletes involved have learned first-hand that all you can do is ride the wave of change.
“We all deal with things and have to be able to adapt to them,” Anderson said.
“It’s all about being ready for anything,” he added. “It’s not ideal, but all of us will be better people.”
And not just because they missed out an opportunity to compete in a track meet — or two months’ worth of them.
“They miss their teammates, they miss the travel and they miss the experiences,” Huber said. “That’s what helps you maybe gain some perspective of this whole thing.”
Those are precisely the things Gerberding said she has been missing this spring.
“I think I appreciate the memories I already have from track; the little things and little details,” she said. “I will be so thankful for every step along the way.”
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