Three months ago, Georgia Southern Softball outfielder Mekhia Freeman had every reason to believe that her senior season would be a bow tied on what has already been a stellar Eagle career.
Freeman burst onto the scene in 2017, batting .323 as a freshman. She earned All-Sun Belt honors in both 2017 and 2018 and began 2020 on a tear. Through 24 games, Freeman was batting at a .403 clip and had already set a personal single-season home run best with five round-trippers.
And then — as it was for thousands of seniors all over the country — it was all over in an instant. The March 13 ruling by the NCAA to cancel all spring sports due to the coronavirus outbreak ended Freeman’s season less than halfway through.
“It was a shock. We had just come back from a road game and were getting ready for a trip to Troy,” Freeman said.
Georgia Southern coach Kim Dean was waiting for the all-clear to announce the season cancellation while the team stood in her office and saw the emotion sweep over her players as news leaks reached their phones before an official statement could be made.
“It was surreal,” Dean said. “It was a tough day. As a coach, my first instinct is always to protect our athletes, but there was nothing I could do.”
As it turned out, there was something that could be done. Dean and her staff decided to attack the crisis with positivity. One of the main focuses of that positive thinking was to believe that the team’s seniors — including Freeman — would get a chance to return in 2021.
Even before the rumors that such a situation would be considered by the NCAA, Freeman was vocal about her desire to play for the Eagles again. When official word came that seniors on spring sports would get an additional year of eligibility, some of the sting of this spring was lifted.
“I really wanted to keep playing,” Freeman said. “I had started thinking about how I got hit by a pitch in my last at bat and that’s not how I wanted my career to end. I love my team and I’m so thankful that Georgia Southern was able to make it work to where they’re able to take back our seniors.”
“Mekhia did so much to grow on and off the field before this season,” Dean said. “She’s one of the best athletes I’ve ever coached and had turned herself into such a great leader of our team.
“I give a lot of credit to (GS Athletic Director) Jared Benko. When the question came up of whether we could afford to help our seniors play another season, he was quick to say that we want to stay loyal to our student-athletes and that we were going to find a way to make it work to where they’re able to take back our seniors.”
Freeman is just one of over a dozen spring sports athletes who are expected to return for a second crack at competing in their final year of eligibility at the collegiate level. Not all athletes intending to stay enrolled have been announced by the school, but there are four other members of the softball team that are eligible to return to a team that had run up a 14-10 record and that had just won its first Sun Belt series of the season before things were called off.
Freeman was always going to be in the Eagles' dugout in 2021. She had already accepted an invitation to become a graduate assistant coach with the team while enrolling in graduate school to pursue her Master's degree in Public Administration. She'll still be entering grad school in the fall, but will keep her uniform instead of trading it out for a coach's polo when spring comes around.
"I can't wait to get back to it," Freeman said. "We've already had team meetings with the incoming freshmen. I'm definitely ready to play another season."