By Scott Goode, assistant athletic director for sports information
The month of March is an extremely busy time for the University’s athletic department. The winter sports of basketball and indoor track and field reach a climax with basketball in its postseason and track and field athletes pushing to qualify for the national meet. At the same time, the spring sports of baseball, softball, tennis, golf and outdoor track and field are hitting the most important parts of their regular seasons.
The first two weeks of March 2020 were no different. The women’s basketball team reached the Great American Conference Tournament in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. Junior Kinga Szarzynska, a native of Poland, qualified for the indoor national track and field meet in the 800 meters and was among the favorites to earn All-America honors.
Harding’s spring sports were in full swing. On March 12, the baseball team was 18-6, had won 11 of its last 12 games, and was near the top of the GAC standings. The squad was preparing to host Oklahoma Baptist in a three-game series that would set them as the early favorite for the conference championship.
The softball team was preparing for a trip to meet Oklahoma Baptist for a four-game series in Shawnee, Oklahoma.
The men’s tennis team was 14-1 and had won eight straight. The women’s tennis team was 14-5 and had won 11 straight. The men were scheduled to play regional powerhouse Washburn on Friday, and both teams were slated to meet Delta State Saturday in Mississippi.
Harding’s golf teams had only a couple of tournaments remaining in the regular season and both were in contention to earn places in the NCAA Division II regional tournaments.
Outdoor track and field had just begun its season. The squads had competed in a meet at Hendrix College, and the multi-event athletes just finished the Harding Spring Break Multi in Searcy. Szarzynska was on her way to Birmingham, Alabama, with her coaches to compete at indoor nationals. Her meet was canceled the day before she was scheduled to run.
Then late in the day on Thursday, March 12, it all stopped. No more baseball series, softball series, tennis matches, golf tournaments or track meets. The COVID-19 pandemic forced the NCAA to cancel all events for the rest of the season.
Harding’s coaches and student-athletes moved into transition mode.
“We shifted from getting ready for the next game or practice to trying to meet the individual needs of each player on our teams and working through it,” athletic director Jeff Morgan said. “We are used to seasons ending and how to deal with those, but we were dealing with teams whose seasons ended in a way we have never seen before.”
Sports ended but school continued with all classes moving online, and the transition had to quickly take place. Spring break ended that weekend, and classes moved online the following week.
The transition was especially tricky for some of Harding’s teams with large international student contingents. Many returned to their home countries to continue their academic semesters. Harding tennis coach David Redding had 11 international students on his men’s and women’s teams.
“I keep up with them almost every day,” Redding said. “The athletes from Spain and France had to be quarantined immediately, and the hope was that everyone stays strong and healthy. It is just really disappointing that the season ended the way it did because we were having such a great year.”
Another key aspect of the transition for coaches was making sure that students adjusted to taking all their classes online.
“Pretty early after classes went online, I reached out to all of our players to make sure that they had what they needed to finish their semester online,” baseball coach Dr. Patrick McGaha said. “I also talked to several professors to let them know how much I appreciated them during this transition. We had almost no issues at all.”
While the shutdown caused some changes, other aspects of the athletic department continued. Coaches still recruited potential student-athletes via virtual tours and conversations. New information was reviewed as it came in and was communicated to members of the athletic department. And the bond of the teams was kept a priority.
“One of the most important aspects of coping during shutdown was getting information from the NCAA and GAC and passing those rulings to our coaches and athletes to keep them informed,” Morgan said. “We also encouraged our coaches to be monitoring their athletes academically, to stay in touch through Zoom meetings, and to keep that connection as a team.”
Those connections are what the Harding community is looking forward to when everyone is able to return to the fields of play. But in the meantime, head football coach Paul Simmons gave a challenge to his team.
“My message to my players every day is, ‘Do what you are supposed to do and be accountable, but then figure out who around you needs you the most, who is hurting, and how can you go be Jesus Christ to those around you that are hurting,’” Simmons said.
“The truth is that people need us, and we are built for this. There has never been a time in my lifetime where there has been more opportunity to lead and to serve and to be an example of the way Jesus wants us to live.”
“My hope is when all this calms down, that there is going to be a great benefit from it,” Simmons said. “Jesus says in John 16 that in this world you are going to have trouble — and this feels like trouble — but take heart, because I have overcome the world.”