Such was life as a student-athlete—especially a senior intercollegiate student-athlete—during the spring 2020 semester.
Nowhere in America was that range of emotions felt more than within the golf programs at Arkansas Tech University. The Golden Suns and the Wonder Boys began their respective spring 2020 seasons with every reason to believe they could compete for a national championship in May.
ATU was the only men's golf program outside of Florida to reach the NCAA Division II national quarterfinals in 2017, 2018 and 2019.
"The confidence we had as a team this year was something that is hard for teams to ever get to," said Austin Gean, who was a member of ATU’s national quarterfinalist teams in 2018 and 2019. "We were there, we knew exactly what we had to do and we put in the work to achieve what we wanted. When the work is put in by each and every individual in the program, then the confidence just comes from everyone because we knew that we were prepared."
Gean is a native of Florence, Ala. He transferred to ATU from the University of Montevallo (Ala.) following his freshman season.
"I transferred here to gain experience playing against top-notch golfers week in and week out with a coach (Luke Calcatera) that I knew would bring the best out of me," said Gean. "Coach Calcatera has been a great influence for me by always helping me be in the best mindset to go out on the golf course and produce my best game. He is always good at reminding me and all of my teammates how good we are and how we have a great chance to win each and every tournament we play in.”
The Arkansas Tech women's golf program reached the NCAA Division II national tournament five times from 2014-19 and was taking aim on an unprecedented sixth consecutive Great American Conference title.
For Clarksville native MaKenzie Douglas, the opportunity to join the Golden Suns program as a freshman in 2016 and contribute to its continued success was overwhelming.
"Not many people know this but, I actually cried in Coach (Amy) Anderson’s office during my visit," said Douglas. "Not because I was scared, but because she was giving me the opportunity to live out a dream. I made playing college golf a goal of mine from the age of 5. Coach Anderson took a chance on a girl from a small town in Arkansas. Because of that, I have learned so many lessons that I may not have learned as quickly if I hadn’t been involved in college athletics.”
The goal of bringing the biggest prize in NCAA Division II women's golf home to Arkansas Tech came into even sharper focus for Douglas when Anderson informed the team that she would be stepping away from coaching at the end of the 2020 season.
"Everyone in college athletics has a dream of winning a national championship," said Douglas, "and we wanted to send Coach out with one."
Gean’s championship aspirations were built around the notion of perfect timing.
"My game is always in great shape leading into the final stretch of tournaments because golf is a game of always peaking at the right times," said Gean. "I have done a great job of peaking at the right times in years past, so this year I took six weeks off from golf during Christmas break to prepare myself mentally and physically for the five-month season we were about to play from January through the end of May. This has always lead me to peak at the perfect time in late March, early April and to continue it throughout the end of the season and postseason play."
It appeared that Gean and the Wonder Boys were on the right track. They won the 2020 University of Missouri-St. Louis Las Vegas Desert Classic during the first week of March with a 54-hole team total of 887. It was one shot better than runner-up Colorado State University-Pueblo, which completed the tournament with a team score of 888. A total of 20 teams competed in the event.
That win, combined with a victory in the NCAA Preview at St. Albans Country Club in St. Louis, Mo., during the fall semester, had the ATU men primed for a deep run into the postseason. A trip of top-four finishes during the 2019-20 season had the ATU women brimming with confidence as well.
But just as the anticipation and belief were building, news of the rapid spread of the coronavirus introduced widespread doubt into American life by the middle of March. Within a matter of days, the NCAA canceled its spring championships and the decision was made to end the 2019-20 intercollegiate athletics season.
"I was in shock and didn’t know what to think," said Gean.
Douglas was alone in her apartment when she read the news that her senior season, and her college golf career, were over.
"That's when everything started to feel like it was crumbling," said Douglas. "Everything was uncertain. Coach called us into a meeting, told us the news and told us how many uncertainties there were. I have never felt as helpless, disappointed and heartbroken as I was in that moment. I felt as though my career was over without proper closure. My teammates tried to comfort me, but I thought I was in a dream and I would wake up the next day and it wouldn't be real."
Of course, it was real. But so was the empathy for all those senior student-athletes felt by coaches, athletic administrators and others with influence over college athletics.
"I made sure to stay positive," said Gean. "I looked toward turning professional, which has always been something I’ve looked forward to, but word was going around that the NCAA might give an extra year back to people so I kept my options completely open."
After a week of uncertainty, the NCAA announced on March 20 that all NCAA Division II student-athletes from spring sports would be granted an extra year of eligibility due to the fact that their spring 2020 seasons were cut short.
"Initially, I felt indifferent," said Douglas. "I was excited because I would get to play again, and then I was scared about the plans I had already made. I just graduated with bachelor’s degrees in sociology and criminal justice, and I had originally planned on coming back to Tech to finish my bachelor’s degree in graphic design. I had already made my schedule and had planned it without having time stipulations in mind. I felt that playing golf might cause me to have to reevaluate my plan. I was also worried about scholarships—since I have already graduated—and housing—because I didn’t even fill out or apply for housing because I was going to drive back and forth from home to go to classes. Coach (Anderson) helped answer my questions and helped put my mind at ease, assuring me that I would be able to do both."
For Gean, the restoration of his senior season was a moment of pure joy.
"I can’t really put it into words because of how exciting it was," said Gean. "I felt as if I was sort of in a dream because I never would’ve thought that it would actually happen that way, but it did."
As the spring wore on, the days became longer and the weather improved, it felt unnatural to Douglas and Gean to be away from the grind and the thrill of competition.
"I’ve missed all of the little moments that combine to make the experience what it is," said Douglas. "I miss the daily camaraderie between teammates. I miss traveling and competing with my team. I miss the routine. I miss getting to play the game I love with people who share the same passion. My team is like my second family."
"The thing I missed the most after the spring semester season was canceled was the competition," said Gean. "I am someone who is always itching to compete on the golf course, or really in anything."
Gean and Douglas have both decided to take advantage of their second chance at a senior year. They will be back on the course in fall 2020, once again preparing and striving to fill the only unchecked box in ATU golf’s tradition of success. Anticipation lives again.
"I think of it as an opportunity to achieve my final goal of college golf, and that is to win a national championship with this squad we have here," said Gean. "I’ve marked off just about every personal goal of mine that I could’ve made going into college golf besides being a national champion. That is something that I and everyone else on our team will be striving for, and I truly believe that it will be a positive outcome for us. It’s going to be one heck of a ride, that’s for sure."
-By Sam Strasner
for the Tech Action, Fall 2020