BY JIM CARLISLE
One minute Cal Lutheran athletes were winning games, setting school records and topping the nation. The next, their seasons were canceled, their classes moved online and they were scattered to their homes across the country.
In March, before the coronavirus pandemic turned hope to heartbreak, several “Cal Lu” teams were racking up breakout seasons and individual athletes were training for national championships.
Even though there had been talk of a shutdown as COVID-19 cases exploded across the United States, when the blow finally fell it came like a gut punch.
“Oh, man, I still have trouble thinking about it,” said track and field coach Matt Lea in mid-May. “We had a team meeting as soon as it happened, and it was pretty emotional. That was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do in my coaching career. I mean, it wasn’t just that we couldn’t compete, we had to shut things down. We’re not even going to be together. When are we going to see each other again?”
Sophomore Evan Cox was ranked No. 1 in the nation in the 400-meter hurdles for the Kingsmen. The men’s 1,600 relay team held the top spot in the country. The Regals’ Kendall Guidetti ’20 was the U.S.’s best in the long jump.
“All of a sudden one day it goes from like 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. to noon and then — we’re done. This season’s over, we’ve canceled all spring sports, all spring events,” said Lea with 16 years of coaching experience.
Among the hardest hit were the inhabitants of Samuelson Aquatics Center: the men’s swim team, which was about to send three members to the NCAA Division III national championships; and the women’s water polo team, ranked No. 1 in the nation’s preseason poll.
Then-senior Ben Brewer ’20 and junior Andreas Nybo each were to swim in three events at the nationals in Greensboro, North Carolina, and junior Luke Rodarte in two.
“They were expecting to do fantastic at the meet. They were racing to win,” coach Barry Schreifels said. “We looked at other times and other racers and other schools and other swimmers and we were planning to win.”
“On that Monday the NCAA announced they were canceling the [Division I] basketball Final Four. And I thought, my goodness, if they’ve canceled that, they’re going to cancel everything. And only maybe an hour or two later, they announced they were canceling all championships, they were suspending all NCAA activities.”
Brewer said having to pull to a dead stop just four days short of leaving for Greensboro was not the way he expected to end his career.
“I’ve swum since I was, like 5 or 6, and this was going to be the grand finale,” he said.
Even though the NCAA granted an extra year of eligibility to spring sports athletes, the swimmers are out of luck because theirs is a winter sport. Brewer plans to join the Coast Guard.
The Regals scarcely had begun their water polo season when the plug was pulled. They won six of their final seven games and were setting their sights on the nation’s first Division III tournament.
It was an especially deep loss for then-senior center Victoria Rose Meek ’20 — whose brother Justin ’18, also a CLU water polo player, was among those killed in the Borderline shootings in 2018.
“I actually took on his cap number,” she said. “I followed him into high school and into college, so he was No. 5 and then I became No. 5 in high school and college. So I did really feel a sense of connectedness to him. It was really devastating to have another loss, in a way. A different loss, but still a loss so close after. It was hurtful and disappointing, but I’m just glad we got to end on a good note. That’s something I’ll be able to hold onto.”
When the season ended, Meek moved to Tucson, Arizona, and planned to apply for Navy Officer Candidate School.
Cal Lutheran’s baseball team was just beginning to roll. Having won the NCAA Division III national championship in 2017, the Kingsmen had taken over as No. 1 in the nation.
Baseball coach Marty Slimak, MPA ’96 said finishing what there was of the season on top did little to ease the disappointment.
“I’ve never had an experience like this,” Slimak said. “I mean if you get to a regional and lose, at least you can look back on a season because you’ve played a season. But this, there’s nothing positive about this. There really isn’t.”
The initial reaction of third baseman Ryne Yamashiro ’20 was anger, he said during virtual commencement week in mid-May. “It’s not just my senior season, but everything as a senior, just graduating with your classmates, everything like that. When I first heard about everything that was going on, I was pretty mad.”
On March 15, he booked a flight home to Hawaii and left the next day. “I didn’t get to say goodbye to anyone. That was definitely the hardest part.”
As news reports showed the severity of the crisis Yamashiro has grown more philosophical. “Now I sit back and I realize how bad this has gotten, especially in California and Los Angeles specifically, I feel like it was the best thing to do.”
Water polo coach Craig Rond believes the global impact of the pandemic might have helped his players’ perspective.
“I think what happened was the media was just showing all the different sports and people and athletes in an Olympic year that aren’t going to the Olympics, and the NBA and Major League Baseball,” Rond said. “I think because everybody had to shut it down, it helped people cope. They just figured there’s hundreds of thousands of people in the same shoes.”
— Jim Carlisle wrote about sports for the Ventura County Star for more than three decades. He has been the public address announcer for Cal Lutheran football since 2001.