EMORY, Va. — Emory & Henry head football coach Curt Newsome was feeling upbeat two weeks ago.
“It was the final day before spring break,” Newsome said. “We were coming off our best season in the weight room, and we had a productive team meeting where we went over our spring schedule.”
As Newsome was speaking, he received an email from college officials informing him that spring break had been extended by a week.
“That made the kids happy, but things just snowballed from there,” Newsome said.
That snowball was the spread of the coronavirus.
Spring football practice, scheduled to start on March 24, was shelved. The E&H assistant coaches are now working from home.
On Thursday afternoon, Newsome was one of only a few people on the entire campus. He spends his evenings communicating with staff and potential recruits via text messages and phone calls.
“We’ve never had to deal with anything like this,” Newsome said.
Life is also on hold for E&H softball star Leanna Toler.
After earning All-ODAC [Old Dominion Athletic Conference] second-team honors last season, the versatile senior shortstop from Abingdon was hitting .316 after 17 games.
The season came to a sudden halt after a March 11 doubleheader at Roanoke College.
“I had no idea that my senior season would play out like this,” Toler said. “It’s a very hard time not being able to compete or practice with my team. We’re all hoping that the rest of our season is not canceled.”
Since the NCAA has eliminated spring championships in all sports, E&H has no chance of competing in the Division III national tournament for the third time in four years.
Decisions about the regular season and conference championships in Division III are being left to individual institutions and to conferences such as the ODAC, which, just a day after these interviews, opted to cancel all championships for the spring. The spring sport seasons in NCAA Division I and Division II had already been canceled.
While other students are away on spring break trips or taking safety precautions at home, Toler has been working and spending time with her family.
Due to the coronavirus, the NCAA has granted spring sports athletes an extra year of eligibility.
“That’s a great thing for a lot of athletes, but I already have plans for employment and for taking my CPA exam once I graduate,” Toler said. “I had come to terms with the idea of my softball career ending this year, but definitely not this soon.”
E&H softball coach Tommy Forrester shares that hope.
“If at any point this semester we are told that our students are safe and that social distancing is no longer necessary, then hopefully we all will return to campus for the last few weeks of the semester,” Forrester said. “If given permission, we will strap up the cleats and be ready to go.”
With five all-conference returners, the Wasps were picked to finish second in the preseason ODAC coaches poll.
“It’s hard to explain the deep impact the pandemic has had on our team,” Forrester said. “It’s been a time of reflection in many different ways.
“We all have elderly and at-risk family members and loved ones. None of us want to do anything to put them in danger, so we are willing to sacrifice as much of our season as necessary to keep them as safe as we can.”
Since his first day on the job at E&H seven years ago, Forrester has preached a family concept among his players and assistants. And the coach said he’s missing his extended family.
“We want to be together,” Forrester said. “We want to practice, we want to train, and we want to compete. Not being allowed to play games is devastating, but it’s also devastating to be apart from each other.
“The sadness of being apart and the opportunities being missed grows more each day. It’s a life lesson that we will get through together.”
E&H senior Josh Fleenor knows all about the highs and lows of sports. After battling through a variety of injuries, the defensive lineman earned All-ODAC and All-State first-team honors this past fall.
Before high schools were closed in Virginia, Fleenor was assisting the track and field team at Holston.
“We got through three weeks of practice, and now all this happened,” Fleenor said. “I’ve played sports all my life, so I can’t imagine what these kids are feeling. My heart really goes out to the seniors at Holston and Emory.”
Fleenor has been fly fishing in his free time. He’s also anxious about graduation day.
“I spent four years with my fellow seniors on and off the field, and I miss those guys,” Fleenor said. “I don’t know if we will be able to be at school here one last time or not. It’s a big waiting game for everybody.”
Online classes at E&H are scheduled to start on March 30.
Newsome did receive a bit of good news Wednesday night when an athlete from the talent-rich Tidewater area of Virginia confirmed that he was coming to play football in Emory.
“We’re calling recruits and checking the transfer portal daily,” Newsome said. “And we’re hoping that the NCAA will increase the amount of fall practice time in the fall.”
“Sports are an escape for a lot of people. But in times like this, you realize that there are more important things in life.”