For athletes at ETSU and Milligan, COVID-19 outbreak leaves stories untold
By Dave Ongie, News Editor
The wave crested for the ETSU men’s basketball team on the night of Monday, March 9, when the Buccaneers cut down the nets in Asheville, North Carolina, after winning the Southern Conference championship.
ETSU Director for Athletic Communications Kevin Brown called that night the “highest of highs” for a basketball team that qualified for the NCAA Tournament and an enthusiastic army of fans that flocked from Johnson City to Asheville in droves to back the Bucs.
That wave crashed less than 72 hours later when the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments were cancelled on March 12 along with all NCAA spring sports championships due to the rapid spread of the coronavirus in the United States. “All of a sudden,” is a phrase Brown used on more than one occasion as he recalled the rapid succession of events that ultimately led to ETSU’s dream season ending three days short of Selection Sunday.
Brown described the news as a gut punch followed by a feeling of emptiness, but he said the move was necessary due to the public health crisis that was unfolding.
“You knew what was going on was bigger than sports,” Brown said. “For the safety of everyone involved, you had to do something.”
The days that followed March 12 grew more and more surreal for Brown. He spent Saturday with family, fighting the urge to check his phone for scores and sports updates. As he grabbed lunch and did some shopping, he was vaguely aware CBS was supposed to be in Johnson City that very day interviewing ETSU Coach Steve Forbes and a player for the network’s nationally televised Selection Sunday special.
And yet, Sunday came and went without ETSU’s name being called, but the Bucs had plenty of company as the tournament bracket remained empty. March Madness had been replaced with an eerie silence Brown is still trying to get used to.
“It’s just an odd feeling, because you’re wired to want to be able to work and to be able to help promote your program,” he said.
The story of the 2019-20 ETSU basketball team wasn’t the only one left unwritten. Brown rattled off the early-season accomplishments of ETSU’s spring sports teams, and lamented all the promising storylines that will never have the chance to fully bloom.
For collegiate spring sports teams around the country, the end came swiftly, and in the oddest of places. ETSU’s baseball team was on a bus, preparing to leave for a three-game series on the road against UNC-Wilmington. The women’s tennis team was in Florida preparing for a match, and the softball team was in the midst of a practice when they got the news their seasons were over.
“I can’t understand the emotions of going through it,” Brown said. “I feel pain for everyone.”
Meanwhile, a similar story was unfolding up the road at Milligan College. The NAIA cancelled spring sports on March 16, leaving Milligan Sports Information Director Daniel Manget grappling to adjust to the same reality Brown was settling into.
Spring is usually an unrelenting time for Manget and his assistant Kassi Butcher, who often find themselves running in all directions on any given day trying to cover all of the school’s athletic teams. But on March 18, Manget was in his office staring up at a white board above his desk filled with all of Milligan’s events for the entire month. It was hard for him to wrap his head around the fact that everything on the board had been cancelled.
“The last week has been kind of shifting gears and realizing the spring semester is over,” Manget said.
Like Brown, Manget’s heart goes out to all of the Milligan athletes who saw their spring season end almost before it started.
“I hate it for our spring athletes, especially for the seniors,” he said.
As the calendar turns to April, Brown and Manget find themselves with a commodity they aren’t accustomed to having in the spring – they’ve got time on their hands. Manget will use it to update Milligan’s athletic website, which was switched over to a new platform last summer right before the school year started. He’s hoping to get the site fully backdated and archived as the school prepares to rebrand as Milligan University this June.
Brown, meanwhile, plans to fill the void by writing some feature stories on ETSU athletes in an effort to keep fans connected to the school’s athletic department event in the absence of competition.
Both men also plan to literally close the book on a collection of unfinished stories by updating the record books at their respective schools. The certainty that comes with logging cold, hard statistics will likely be a welcomed distraction from a world suddenly teeming with uncertainty.
“Right now, we’re in uncharted waters,” Brown said. “We hope that if we take the correct steps, hopefully we can knock this sooner or later. We hope we can get to some type of normalcy at some point here in the near future.”