It’s early last Wednesday morning. Morgan Martin and the Hawai’i beach volleyball team are laying over at LAX, on their way from Honolulu to Deland, Fla., for a tournament at Stetson. Before they board their next flight, they learn that USC has dropped out of the event.
“Lame,” Martin says. “We’re not cowards.”
They fly on, not knowing what, exactly, they’re flying into or away from.
While the SandBows are in the air, the UCLA Bruins, USC Trojans and Pepperdine Waves are at USC’s Merle Norman Stadium. It’s a clash of the sport’s most dominant programs, owners of seven of eight national championships. Savvy Simo, UCLA’s defender on No. 1, never checks her phone on game days. She returns to her room that night elated. The Bruins have gone 2-0, twice winning narrow matches, entrenching themselves atop the West Region. She also won both of her individual matches handily.
That is all the sporting news she is aware of. She does not know that the NBA has postponed its season, that March Madness is under threat, that the MLB and PGA Tour are discussing the same.
“The world,” Simo’s roommate says, “is literally ending.”
She tells Simo that about the NBA. Simo wonders if she’s kidding.
The next morning, only Simo, sophomore Lindsey Sparks and senior Mac May show for UCLA’s optional conditioning practice. Simo’s ticked. She fires off a long message to her team, writing: “We need to get conditioning more and working out more because if we want to get to Gulf Shores, we need to make sure we’ve done everything we could do to make sure we’re prepared.”
They finish their workout, head out to grab some food. Their coach, Stein Metzger, is there. He’s on the phone, and it is not difficult to discern that the conversation is a hard one. He hangs up, tells the girls that in 20 minutes, their lives are going to be changed completely.
Fourteen miles down the road, the LMU Lions are having a different sort of team meeting. They’re on a plane bound for Grand Canyon. The girls are doing what you’d expect them to be doing before a takeoff while the world is going mad: Surfing their phones, refreshing as a cavalcade of alerts comes rushing in.
“We were just sitting there reading all this stuff and we were like ‘It’s only a matter of time,’” LMU senior Savannah Slattery said. It’s a matter of five minutes. When coach John Mayer boards the plane, he tells the girls to get off. The GCU tournament’s cancelled.
Stetson cancels as well.
Martin and Hawai’i have traveled nearly 5,000 miles to have “a great night in the hotel,” Martin says, laughing. Denial sets in. They do not accept that their season is over, convincing themselves instead that it’s simply put on hold until April.
“This is fine,” Martin remembers thinking. “We’ll turn back around and go back to practice.”
LSU does not have any travel plans. Most of them are, ironically, in the best place they could possibly be: a Costco, and a grocery store.
Coach Russell Brock has given them the day off. He knows the news that is inevitably coming. He advised them to go to the grocery store, stock up on food. And so senior Kristen Nuss and a few teammates head to Costco, while senior Claire Coppola and a handful of others go to the grocery store. And then the NCAA tweets the news that devastates the entire sports community: The spring season is cancelled.
“We had to leave,” Nuss said. “It wasn’t a pretty sight.”
Martin and the SandBows don’t fully accept the news until they’re back in Hawai’i, picking up their bags.
“Are we done, done?” they ask one another.
They’re done, done. Slattery finds out while pacing her dorm room. The UCLA beach and men’s volleyball team are together, in the volleyball house, when the news breaks. Some of them laugh, the news so bizarre and heartbreaking that what else can you really do?
“What are we going to do?” Simo recalls a few of the athletes wondering. “Play ping-pong for six hours?”
What are we going to do?
That is the question being faced by every athlete in college sports, but it is one that must be answered most immediately by the seniors. The NCAA granted a relief season — a hardship redshirt, in a sense — to everyone, giving seniors the option of a fifth year. But schools must then figure out what to do with scholarships. Rosters. Incoming recruits.
Seniors must decide between accepting jobs or forgoing the “real world,” as Simo calls it, for one more season. They must think about where to live and how they’re going to live there.
“This is more than just volleyball,” Simo said.
“School is shut down. It’s changing our lives. I personally have a lot to think about in terms of what’s next for me. Yes, I get another year of eligibility but there’s so many other things that go into it. I was so mentally prepared, physically and emotionally, to graduate and move on with my life. I have living arrangements in Manhattan Beach and all these different things that I had lined up and now it’s, ok, I’m so livid that I couldn’t finish my season but if I want to come back I have to find a place to live here, but that’s going to be tough because lease signing has already happened.
“I would need a full-ride scholarship for an entire year, not just a quarter, and I’d have to pick up a minor. There’s so much to think about. It’s just completely uprooting all the plans I had.”
The list of seniors and graduate transfers is significant in NCAA beach volleyball and all their circumstances are different. For example, LSU’s Taryn Kloth is a graduate student transfer in her second year. She and sophomore Kelli Agnew were undefeated this season. The Italian seniors at FIU, Federica Frasca and Margherita Bianchin, have more to consider than eligibility. They obviously can’t go home because of the coronavirus travel ban. Deahna Kraft was a senior beach player at Pepperdine but is going to play indoors at Wisconsin next season. Stetson senior Norwegian Sunniva Helland-Hansen is finished with an eye on playing in the Olympics for her country. And it goes on and on.
Slattery isn’t sure what she’s going to do. She had a full-time job arranged to begin after she graduates, but can she leave this team? The one that she fully expected to be the first in LMU history to make the NCAA Championships?
“I feel like it’s a lot of unfinished business,” she said. “My heart obviously wants to continue, but I do have a full-time job once I graduate so I did have a plan for that and just my future in life after college, so there’s a lot of logistics I have to figure out if I want to continue.”
Iya Lindahl, Cal’s senior defender at No. 1, is no different. She has already moved back to San Diego. She will not be playing another year in Berkeley.
“I’ve already paid for college for four years. That’s a lot more money to play again. It’s so crappy this happened, but I can’t just drop another $40,000,” she said. “I don’t have that luxury. If I got a full scholarship at a Southern California school, that’s something I would definitely consider.”
She has the talent to garner that type of offer. She also has the talent to play on the AVP Tour, on which she has qualified for three main draws. It has been her dream to play on the AVP full time. It has also been her dream to compete in the NCAA Tournament.
What does she do now?
What does anybody do?
“It doesn’t seem real,” Slattery said. “It feels like we’re going to be going to practice on Monday, but I know that I’m not. It’s really weird. A lot has changed. A lot is changing. I’m a scheduler. I knew my next five years. I knew my plan, knew what I wanted to do. This has really thrown a wrench in it because there’s a lot of options now. I’ve been in a limbo, weird state trying to figure it out.
“Right now, I’m just organizing my room, organizing my life.”
While Slattery’s restless energy is spent in her room, Simo and Lindahl are already training together on the beach in San Diego. Martin is planning on taking advantage of the abundant free time exploring the islands: rock climbing, cliff jumping, swimming.
“Life is still good,” she said. “It’s just a little aimless.”
The only seniors spoken to who did not seem aimless or listless were Coppola and Nuss. The leaders of the top-ranked team in the country, they know what this season could have been for LSU: First NCAA Championship on the beach, first big victory for the East. This was, they knew, their time.
They’re planning on using more of it.
“There’s a lot of unfinished business,” Coppola said. “We’re not done here. There’s a lot of goals we didn’t even get to try and achieve. We want that. We want that for ourselves and our teammates and our schools. If given the opportunity, we’ll take it.”
While the virus has broken the sports world, it has also united it in ways only adversity can. When Lindahl heard the news, she messaged USC transfer Hailey Harward on Instagram. Martin, too, was communicating with competitors only a few days ago she’d considered her rivals. When Simo found out the season was cancelled, she reached out to Coppola and Nuss, her biggest competitors both on No. 1 and as a team.
“I’m not even their friend, but just from playing against them, we had that respect,” Simo said. “We both reached out to each other and I said ‘I’m so sorry, it was an honor playing against you.’ ”
Chances are, they’ll play each other again, either in college or on tour. So they’ll train. Climb rocks. Jump off cliffs. Swim. Lift. Anything but sit still. Because they’re athletes, and athletes move forward.
“Not many people can understand what it feels like and that’s where we found a lot of comfort,” Coppola said. “All these people are going through the same thing we are.”