The 2020 season got off to a pretty good start for the Rockford University softball team.
The Regents were 6-2 and riding a four-game winning streak. After a pair of losses at a tournament in Naples, Fla. on March 9, the Regents won their next four games by a combined score of 49-9.
It looked like everything was falling into place for Rockford to be better than its 16-win season from 2019, which opened with a four-game losing streak and closed with a seven-game losing skid.
And then the plug was pulled. As COVID-19 started its spread around the globe, the Regents, like so many other spring sports teams, called off the rest of the season.
“It’s still really frustrating to practice for 9 months and then only get to play eight games,” said Rockford senior outfielder Emily Cox, an Erie native. “We did the math, and we had 35 5 a.m. practices to play eight games. It doesn’t really seem fair.”
What proved to be the Regents’ final game of the year was part of the trip to Naples, a 10-2 win over Curry on March 12, the day after the NBA shut down its season and other sports began to shut down as well.
“Our coach, before we went out and competed on our last day, said ‘Go out and play your hardest because this could very well be our last game,’” Cox said. “He knew how serious everything was getting. He knew that our school was having meetings about not holding classes. For the most part, if you’re not going to hold classes, you’re probably not going to compete in athletics.”
Michaela Spanbauer, a senior from Oregon and a catcher and infielder for the Regents, wondered if this might happen. Keeping up with the news, she saw how the virus was spreading and thought that this might affect the sports schedule.
“It was kind of a thought in my mind that it was going to end,” she said. “Through the last two games, we kind of had to focus on now instead of the future and the rest of our season.”
After the final game, students were told spring break was going to be extended. A few days later, things were shut down entirely.
“They always say to play every game as if it’s your last,” Spanbauer said. “At the time, we didn’t know eligibility would be granted back. I think our whole team wanted to play like it was our last game, because that’s what we initially thought it was going to be.”
Rockford University shut down its campus amid the outbreak, and is transitioning to online classes starting today. For the players, that means working from home, with no practices or workouts for the time being.
With spring sports shut down for the year, seniors at first feared that this would be the end, their careers stopped not by a loss on the field, but by events off of it. But an NCAA panel recommended that athletes in spring sports should get another year of eligibility after seeing their 2020 seasons cut drastically short.
“I think everyone on my team has decided that they want to come back,” Cox said. “We had seven seniors, and two of us were graduating in May. We’ll still graduate in May. So we’ll have to start our masters program if we want to compete next year, but I think it’s kind of a no-brainer for us, because we’re not ready for it to be over.”
After transferring into Rockford, Spanbauer still has credits to finish up before graduating, so she was going to be on campus regardless.
“It’s even better that I can play softball my senior season with academics and as a softball player,” she said.
For the Regents, that means they will have to try to pick up in 2021 where they left off in 2020, trying to recapture the magic of a team that had scored 74 runs in eight games.
“I don’t think there was a person on our team that wasn’t hitting well,” Cox said. “That’s really hard to see something come to an end like that.”
And few people were hitting better than Cox, who came out of the gate with a .455 batting average, .538 slugging percentage, three home runs and eight RBIs in 22 at-bats.
Spanbauer had a .300 average with 10 RBIs in 20 at-bats.
“I have full confidence that we will be better next year, because we will continue to grow as a team with the same team we had,” Spanbauer said.
Though the group expects to return intact next spring, they still have to get through this one, a spring with no softball and being away from their teammates.
“Our group chats have been full of ‘I miss you guys’ and ‘I don’t know what to do without you guys,’” Cox said.