'This is our next opponent': Michigan college athletes cope with loss of championship aspirations

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Early Thursday afternoon, the Ferris State men's basketball team was on a chartered bus about 75 miles outside of the final destination, Indianapolis, where it was set to start its run for a second Division II championship in three years.

Then came a phone call, and the bus turned around, headed back for Big Rapids.

Ferris State basketball players eat at Outback Steakhouse after learning their season had been canceled.

The NCAA had just canceled all of its upcoming championships for winter sports, and eventually spring, too, because of the coronavirus outbreak that's spread across the globe.

And just like that, Ferris State's season was over, its seniors one stinkin' victory away from setting the program's all-time record.

"Oh man," Ferris State coach Andy Bronkema said that afternoon from the bus, "I'll be fortunate enough to coach again. These seniors, they're going to have to deal with this."

The first order of business, though, was finding some food, and not just a quick trip though a drive-thru.

"We'll be going to the best steakhouse we can find," Bronkema said.

"Our last supper will not be McDonald's."

Eventually, they found an Outback Steakhouse in Fort Wayne, Ind., and ordered blooming onion after blooming onion until their hearts were content.

It's no championship trophy, to be sure, but it would have to do.

All the talk since the NCAA made its decision has focused on "March Madness," the men's basketball tournament, and rightly so. It's one of the biggest sporting events on the planet, and it's not happening.

But there are thousands of other college athletes who were affected this week, in the following sports: Hockey, bowling, skiing, swimming and diving, indoor track, wrestling, mixed rifle, fencing and gymnastics in the winter; and baseball, softball, men's volleyball, women's beach volleyball, water polo, golf, tennis, lacrosse, outdoor track and rowing in the spring.

The Metro Detroit area was set to host the Frozen Four at Little Caesars Arena in April, as well as the men's and women's fencing championships at TCF Center, the NAIA men's and women's bowling championships at Five Star Lanes in Sterling Heights and the NCAA women's bowling championships at Thunderbowl Lanes in Allen Park this month. Dave Beachnau, senior vice president for the Detroit Sports Commission, said the loss of the events could cost the area up to $10 million in economic impact, mostly from the Frozen Four, not to mention the demoralizing effects on staff who spend up to 18 months putting together a hosting bid.

"As things were tracking, we were prepared for what was ultimately the outcome," Beachnau said.

'They were crushed'

The athletes, though, probably weren't nearly as prepared, particularly the seniors in winter sports, who now will spend their remaining years wondering what-if.

The NCAA announced late last week that it was prepared to offer an extra year of eligibility for spring-sports athletes, and said it was looking into winter-sports waivers, too — but that's a pickle, given the winter sports were mostly complete.

Most expect the waivers to be for spring sports athletes, only, and even that's complicated, because it creates a back log for incoming freshman classes.

"That throws off a lot of things," said Scott Sparks, a senior golfer for Detroit Mercy from Shelby Township who had been packing for a weekend tournament at Tennessee Tech when he got the news. "Some of us were gonna continue trying to play professionally, or get a job in the real world.

"For me personally, I don't know want to go out like this, you know what I mean?"

Even Sparks' part-time job has been affected. He does sales and golf club-fitting work for TaylorMade, but even some of his events have been canceled, including the popular Demo Days at Carl's Golfland.

He'll continue with his school work — which across the state has shifted to online only — and then, who knows what the heck he'll do to stay busy.

"Maybe," said Sparks, "I'll get really good at video games."

The most talked about impact locally from the NCAA championships ban, of course, has been Michigan State and Michigan men's basketball, including the likely early ending of careers for the likes of Cassius Winston, Zavier Simpson and Jon Teske.

But the impact is much deeper than that, even on the basketball scene.

The Michigan women's basketball team was in position for an NCAA Tournament bid, as were the Central Michigan women, despite losing in their conference tournament. It would've been the Chippewas' third consecutive trip to the NCAAs.

"They're just devastated," Central Michigan athletic director Michael Aflord said.

There's more impact on basketball, though.

In Division II, the Ferris State and Michigan Tech men were getting set to start their postseasons, as were the Grand Valley State and Ferris State women, who were to play each other Friday in Springfield, Mo.

Arika Tolbert of Detroit Country Day and her Hope College teammates were 29-0 and No. 1 in the nation when their title bid ended.

In Division III, the Hope women were to play their third-round game Friday against Baldwin Wallace at DeVos Fieldhouse in Holland. Hope was 29-0 and had beaten opponents this year by scores like 87-26, 80-30, 92-41, 76-27, 104-39, 96-28 and, in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament, 69-18.

"I've had better days," Hope coach Brian Morehouse said Thursday. "It's a pretty difficult pill to swallow. It was about 4:20 and I was sitting in my office, and my athletic director poked his head around the door, walked in and looked at me. I was just, like, honestly I just started crying. I knew he was going to give me bad news."

He then called a team meeting in the locker room, just players and coaches.

And Morehouse had no idea what to say, rare for any coach.

"I've won a national championship and I know what the script is after that game, I've lost the last games and I know what that script is," he said. "Honestly, I didn't know what to say other than, 'You did everything I asked you to do, you took on every challenge, you conquered every challenge.'

"They were crushed."

'It's a disaster'

In the lower levels for basketball, at the National Junior College Athletic Association tier, Michigan had four teams scheduled to play in the NCAA Tournament: Muskegon and Schoolcraft on the men's side, and Macomb and Mid-Michigan on the women's side.

The Macomb Community College women were the No. 3 overall seed for a tournament that was set to end with the finals at St. Clair County Community College in Port Huron.

The NJCAA hasn't canceled all championship events yet, but rather to suspend until April 3 and then re-assess the situation. Macomb coach Jay Ritchie thinks he knows where this is heading.

The Macomb CC women's basketball team poses for photos after defeating Mott CC on March 7 to win the Region XII East District Championship. The win put Macomb in the NJCAA national championship game, which was canceled.

"The way things are going ..." Ritchie said. "Wednesday night, I got up in the middle of the night and I was like, 'What, the NBA is canceled?' At that point in time, reality started to really hit hard. This probably isn't going to happen.

"It's a disaster, but everyone understands it's better to be safe than sorry. We get it. We're small potatoes compared to anybody else.

"My gut feeling tells me it's done."

Ritchie, whose team still has plans to continue practicing until it gets a final word, said no matter what, the school plans to put a banner up to honor a team that is 32-0 and scored 100 points 15 times this season.

In hockey, Michigan and Western Michigan were in position for an NCAA Tournament berth, and the state schools had 17 wrestlers set to compete in the Division I championships, Michigan heavyweight Mason Parris among them as the No. 2 seed in his bracket. Wayne State had a fencer qualify for the NCAAs. Michigan baseball, ranked 16th now and No. 1 earlier in the season, had high hopes to get back to the College World Series, after losing in the championship a year ago; Michigan softball was ranked No. 18.

And then, just like that on Thursday, it was all over, the NCAA among the leaders in sports to take quick action. The NBA and NHL are suspended, MLB is delayed, golf and motor sports are suspended. As of Sunday afternoon, the sports world domestically was pretty much down to bowling and UFC — and, interestingly, the Horizon League, a rare conference that has only suspended and not yet canceled competition through the spring. Oakland and Detroit Mercy are in the league.

All told in college, the NCAA has canceled winter and spring sports through all three divisions, the NAIA has canceled winter championships, and the NJCAA has suspended play across all three divisions.

"This is our next opponent," Bronkema, the Ferris State coach, said of the coronavirus conundrum — which denied his senior class, with 113 victories, a chance to break the program record, set two years ago by the team that won the program's first DIvision II championship.

"And we'll handle it right."

A steak and a blooming onion seems like a fine place to start.


Twitter: @tonypaul1984