Piedmont seniors face unexpected end to athletic careers

By Davis Barlow, Brittany Gowen & Will Sargeant

Ending just as fast as it started, the Spring 2020 school year and athletic season came to a sudden demise just a few games in, thanks to COVID-19. Along with the end of face-to-face instruction, all NCAA Division I, Division II and Division III seasons fell victim to the epidemic too. The unprecedented cancellation of an entire season rocked an already staggered college athletic community and has left many student-athletes, especially graduating seniors, frustrated.

Noah Heatherly rounds first in a game last season against Oglethorpe.

“Honestly, it’s just a really unfortunate situation. I felt as though we were starting to come into our own as a group and we were starting to see some young guys really blossom into their roles on the team,” said senior baseball player Noah Heatherly. 

The Piedmont College baseball team was off to a 10-7 start on the year. The team was told the season was being put on hold and they were being sent home just hours before they were due to leave for LaGrange College for a big weekend series. 

“I hate it for everyone on our club, especially the seniors who have dedicated the last four years of our lives into this program,” Heatherly said. “It is a shame that we weren’t able to see it come to an end.” 

It was left to the coaches to break the unfortunate news to the players, something that baseball coach Justin Scali felt said was difficult. “I feel for our players, especially our seniors that will not be returning to play next year,” he said. “I hurt for them especially, I know they wanted to finish their journey and not getting a chance to accomplish goals on the field is frustrating.” 

This news impacted coaches as much as it did the student-athletes. The entire Piedmont College coaching staff devoted their lives to the student-athletes and the ultimate success of their programs. Many of the Piedmont programs were having successful seasons at the time COVID-19 halted their campaigns.

“It was really tough to hear the news because we were having such a good season,” said Trey Martin, head women’s tennis coach. The team was 11-2 during their annual Spring Break Orlando trip when the news of the season being cancelled struck. “But that’s life and I am just happy I got to coach the four seniors that we are losing for as long as I did.”

Along with the women’s tennis team, the men’s lacrosse team was off to a great start beating conference rival Huntington, 17-10, just before the cancellation. 

“It’s heartbreaking working so hard to earn a chance at a championship, individual accolades and a senior recognition day,” said senior captain and goalie, Zach Czulada, who made first-team All-Conference in 2018 and was named tournament MVP and second-team All-Conference in 2019. “Just having it taken away out of the blue and leaving you clueless as to how your athletic career could end on such devastating terms.” 

From their first day on the team, athletes like Czulada anticipate having their “senior day,” when teammates and fans celebrate their achievements and careers. For many senior athletes, this is the last time in which they will be competitively playing the sport they have participated in since childhood. That fact is not lost on coaches.

“Trying to communicate the news to our seniors was honestly one of the hardest things I think I’ve had to do as a coach,”said Kirsten Smith, women’s lacrosse coach, adding that she was “heartbroken” for her seniors.

Athletic Director Jim Peeples said the department has been keeping in touch with its athletes to make sure they are doing OK. “You’re dealing with a group of senior student-athletes that have had their collegiate athletic career ultimately ended, so you have to be a bit of a counselor,” he said. “It is definitely a different time any of us have faced in athletics.”

Athletic communications director Danielle Percival said the department is looking at ways to recognize seniors, working with coaches to show appreciation with spotlights and other features on www.piedmontlions.com. “It has definitely been a collaborative effort with various coaches to find out what those stories from within your program that we should feature, especially those spring sport seniors,” she said.

A bit of positive news was announced when the NCAA recently decided that spring sport athletes would receive an extra year of eligibility due to the abrupt and unprecedented end of the season. Piedmont College will make adjustments to accommodate seniors wishing to return, allowing senior athletes to come back and live on campus to finish out their athletic careers in the 2021 season. 

However, for many senior athletes enrolling for another semester is not feasible. As they graduate in May in prepare to begin their professional careers, Smith is confident they will succeed. 

“The real world is a scary place, but they have all of the tools necessary to face anything that is thrown at them,” she said. “I hope that they were able to enjoy their senior year as much as possible and can look back at their time here and smile.”