COVID-19 only thing that can halt historic season for Cardinal sports

The North Central men’s basketball team prepares to tip off a game. The Cardinals were ranked sixth in the country when the National Collegiate Athletic Association called off all competition due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (North Central College photo)

North Central College’s year to remember came to a stunning halt on March 12 when the NCAA made the unprecedented announcement that it would cancel all remaining winter and spring championships in response to the worldwide coronavirus outbreak.

After hosting first- and second-round games in the Division III Men’s Basketball championship, the nation’s sixth-ranked team was prepared to play Washington University in the tournament’s round of 16 while also sending student-athletes to the Men’s and Women’s Indoor Track and Field championships and Wrestling championships.

“Everyone was getting ready to go on that Monday (March 9),” said athletic director Jim Miller ’86. “We had our normal preparations with site representatives and visiting teams. It was business as usual.”

On March 10, the College had planned to proceed with additional sanitation and disinfecting protocols. The following day, the NCAA announced that championship events were to be conducted with only essential staff and a limited number of family members in attendance.

“We were supposed to receive forms to list the spectators who would be allowed to come to the game, and we never got it, so we had an inkling that another announcement was coming,” Miller said. “Our team went through its normal practice on Thursday, and then WashU arrived and we got everything they needed to start their practice at 3 p.m.

“Then at 3:17 p.m. the announcement came, and literally 10 minutes later WashU went to their bus to drive back to St. Louis after traveling more than five hours to get here. And the season’s over. It was devastating for everybody.”

At the same time, the track and field and wrestling championship events were halted as teams received the news from site representatives.

“We were less than 16 hours from weigh-ins when we found out,” said head men’s and women’s wrestling coach Joe Norton, whose team had qualified a program-record five individuals for the men’s championship. “Telling our guys the news was the hardest thing I’ve had to do as a head coach. Understandably, they did not take it well.”

The winter successes came in the wake of fall’s national NCAA Division III football championship, plus a women’s triathlon title and runner-up finish in men’s cross country.

With little option but to prepare for the 2020-2021 academic year, many coaches turned to online video conferencing and other virtual means to provide support to current student-athletes and persist with recruitment.

“They’re communicating and engaging with recruits in ways that we’ve never been able to before,” Miller said. “So far, the results have been really encouraging.”

The NCAA’s announcement — followed a day later by the CCIW Council of Presidents canceling all remaining conference events for the academic year—put the brakes on a promising spring season.

The baseball team was ranked in the top 10 nationally in two Division III polls and had opened the season with seven straight wins. Early results for softball (a 7-1 record), women’s lacrosse (5-0) and men’s lacrosse (4-1) gave cause for excitement as well.

“We were looking at possibly the absolute most successful athletic year in the school’s history,” Miller said. “There’s no question. To have everything shut down for everyone is disappointing, but we’re all grown ups and we understand that people are dying and that is more important. It gives you a little perspective on what you have. There’s a lot of life lessons to be learned through athletics…and we had no choice.”

North Central enjoyed a winter campaign that saw an array of conference, regional and national accolades from several programs.

The Cardinals won College Conference of Illinois & Wisconsin (CCIW) team championships in men’s basketball (the program’s first regular-season title since 2012) and men’s and women’s indoor track and field. The track and field programs combined to achieve a total of 10 individual conference championships, while the men’s wrestling team claimed five individual CCIW crowns.

The men’s basketball program hosted the first two rounds of the NCAA Division III Men’s Basketball Championship for the second consecutive year, defeating Adrian College (Michigan), 69-54, and the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, 84-82 in overtime, to advance to the tournament’s round of 16 for the third time. Connor Raridon received All-America honors from and the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC), becoming the first player in the program’s history to earn All-America awards in two straight seasons.

North Central qualified a record five entrants in the Division III Men’s Wrestling Championship, and all five qualifiers—Cody Baldridge, Marc Fleenor, Ian Mullen, Robbie Precin  Anthony Rink—were awarded All-America honors by the National Wrestling Coaches Association.

The men’s track and field program qualified nine entries for the Division III Indoor Championship. Michael Stanley, Maceo Findlay, Gavin Cernek and Erik Musgrave made the field in the 4-by400-meter relay and Stanley also teamed with Nick Licari, Brendon Sebastian and Gabe Pommier to qualify in the distance medley relay. Stanley also qualified individually in the 400-meter dash, as did Sebastian in the mile run and Nick Janca in the high jump, while Licari and Pommier were joined by Braden Nicholson and Matt Osmulski  in the field for the 5,000-meter run.

The women’s track and field program achieved six qualifying marks for the indoor championship, including Katie Bonney (400-meter dash), Alexandra Draves (20-pound weight throw), Taiah Gallisath (high jump), Milia Harris (60-meter hurdles), Kelsey McLaurin (triple jump) and Kathy Myrda (pole vault).

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