It’s been a bit of a week for Georgia Southern Athletics.
On March 5, word broke that the school had found a new athletic director in Jared Benko. The next few days were all gravy for Eagle teams. GS Baseball rolled to a sweep over Valparaiso and the softball team started out its conference schedule on a high note before the men’s basketball team rallied for a thrilling 16-point comeback in the final 10 minutes of a Sun Belt tournament win at Hanner Fieldhouse.
By 9 p.m. on Wednesday, the momentum had reached a fever pitch. GS Baseball had won its second game over Georgia in as many nights to sweep a three-game season series over the third-ranked Bulldogs. At the same time, men’s basketball was finishing off a dominating win at Georgia State to advance to the Sun Belt semifinals.
And then it all stopped.
Just minutes after Wednesday’s big wins for Georgia Southern came word that the National Basketball Association was suspending its season due to concerns of the growing coronavirus outbreak, and the landslide of cancellations was only getting started.
Before noon on Thursday, the Sun Belt announced that no fans would be allowed at the semifinals and finals of the basketball tournament. Less than an hour after that, everything was called off and the Eagles were redirected back to Statesboro as their season had ended.
“I’m totally supportive of the decision,” GS coach Mark Byington tweeted. “I don’t feel comfortable jeopardizing the safety of our players, staff and their families. I’m heartbroken for our team, especially our (seniors), because we were playing great and we all felt destined to win the championship.”
The initial wave of precautions and cancelations seemed to be limited to huge gatherings with widespread travel across professional leagues and NCAA conference tournaments. But as the day wore on, the hits kept coming.
By mid-afternoon, the NCAA announced not only the cancelation of its upcoming basketball tournaments, but of all championships for spring sports. There was speculation that regular season events could still play out for Eagle squads, but the Sun Belt was right behind the NCAA, canceling all spring sports events and putting an end to the 2020 Georgia Southern sports calendar.
GS Baseball coach Rodney Hennon delivered the news to his team on Thursday and the mood was somber, but just as Georgia Southern coaches realized the overarching need for game cancelations, the players were also understanding. Condolences for the lost seasons of players rolled in on social media throughout the night and Eagle athletes were appreciative of the support instead of critical of the cancelations.
One tweet wasn’t sure whether to “smile or cry” over a post by NCAA Baseball’s notification about the Eagles’ sweep of UGA that was the account’s last before announcement of the halt to the season.
“Smile, 100%,” responded GS shortstop Austin Thompson.
“I’m with (Thompson),” Eagle closer Hayden Harris replied.
The final blow dealt to GS Athletics came Thursday night when what was to be the 41st annual Schenkel Invitational was called off, depriving the men’s golf team of its signature event. The full field of 12 teams had already arrived in Statesboro and many had helped with the pre-tournament youth clinic, but the annual barbecue dinner to kick off the event instead doubled as the closing festivities.
The circumstances of the ongoing response to the coronavirus threat has left speculation and decisions on athletic events in a fluid state, but there is little doubt that Georgia Southern athletic teams will not compete again until the fall semester. The university is awaiting word from the Sun Belt Conference to help determine any further action.