Bears Interrupted

Bears Interrupted

History will have a hard time with this one.

It began as another Year of the Bear. Football reached the Big 12 Conference Championship Game and played in the Sugar Bowl for the first time in 63 years. Volleyball claimed the Big 12 title and reached the Final Four — both program firsts. Both basketball teams earned No. 1 national rankings.

However, neither of the basketball seasons made it to the finish line, and the spring sport seasons barely got started.

NCAA President Mark Emmert announced March 12 the cancellation of the Division I men’s and women’s basketball tournaments as well as remaining winter and spring NCAA championships due to the COVID-19 public health threat. We will never know if this would have been another Year of the Bear like 2011-12, when all 19 of Baylor’s intercollegiate sports made it to postseason play.

“It just makes you wonder, what if?” women’s basketball head coach Kim Mulkey says. The Lady Bears were 28-2 and ranked third nationally when the season abruptly ended. “There were no guarantees, but we definitely felt like we left something on the table.”

The path appeared to be laid out for the Lady Bears to make it to the Final Four in New Orleans with a chance to defend their 2019 national championship. As a projected No. 1 seed, they would have hosted first- and second-round games in the NCAA Tournament and played in the Dallas Regional. 

With the clear understanding that “what’s going on in the world is much bigger than any national championship,” the hardest part for Mulkey and the rest of the coaches was not getting that final conclusion to the season. 

Sophomore KC Lightfoot, the No. 2-ranked pole vaulter in the country, was in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a day away from competing for a title at the NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships.

Men’s basketball was in Kansas City for the Big 12 Championship. The fifth-ranked Bears (26-4) were hours from a quarterfinal matchup against Kansas State. A season to remember included a Big 12-record 23-game winning streak and the program’s first win at Kansas’ Allen Fieldhouse.

“I know we were all looking forward to seeing Baylor with the No. 1 seed (for the NCAA tournament),” men’s basketball head coach Scott Drew says. “That was something we worked extremely hard to have an opportunity to achieve.”

Sophomore All-American Jared Butler and junior MaCio Teague declared for the NBA Draft but both left open the possibility of returning to Baylor next year with a team that could be more talented.

“Hopefully, this group all returns with the same hunger and desire and love for each other,” Drew says. “And now, we have a chance to finish what we started from the standpoint that hopefully you have a Big 12 tournament, hopefully you have an NCAA tournament. March Madness is such a memorable time. That’s where players often leave their mark on a university or college basketball. That’s something I’d love for them to see.”

Since they weren’t as far along in their respective seasons, the spring sports’ abrupt season ending perhaps wasn’t as heartbreaking, especially with the NCAA ruling that allows spring-sport student-athletes the opportunity to get back that year of eligibility.

After a rare down year in 2019, softball bounced back to a 19-5 start and was ranked 18th nationally. Senior pitcher Gia Rodoni returned from a 2019 season-ending injury and was 8-3 with a 1.15 ERA, two saves and 97 strikeouts. She and three other seniors opted to return for another senior season next year.

“We certainly hadn’t peaked yet, but we were playing really good ball,” softball head coach Glenn Moore says. “I understand this is bigger than softball. I try to keep that in perspective. But from a softball standpoint, it was devastating. This team was ready to reclaim the position they had been in for quite a few years, and we were well on our way.”

Battling through injuries and suspensions early in the season, baseball won series against Nebraska and Cal Poly and swept a trio of SEC teams at the Shriners Hospitals for Children Classic in Houston. The Bears were 10-6 and a week away from opening Big 12 play when the season ended.

“We were starting to get some guys healthy, get them back on the field, while we were having some success,” baseball head coach Steve Rodriguez says. “That’s where the frustration kind of hit; we were never really 100 percent, in regards to exactly where we wanted them. At the same time, I could see us getting into postseason, hopefully with our starters and everybody intact. Once you get to postseason, just like everybody else, anything goes.”

Across the board, there were similar stories. Women’s tennis bounced back from a tough 2019 to start 10-2 and move back into the national rankings at No. 22. Men’s tennis was 13-3 and getting healthier. Both golf teams were in the national top 10. Additionally, head coach Felecia Mulkey’s acrobatics and tumbling team was No. 1 nationally and seemingly headed to its sixth-straight NCATA national championship.

“I think there’s a relief that the majority of them get to come back and do it again, but I think they wanted to see the end of this year, too,” Felecia Mulkey says of a team that will lose six seniors whose careers were cut short. “They feel like they have some unfinished business.”

First-year football head coach Dave Aranda is in a much different boat. With eight other new coaches on staff, they were still in the introductory phase and days away from Aranda’s first spring training workouts when the NCAA shut down everything. They did have a series of eight scheme installs that were filmed, and Aranda says the players can watch those at their leisure. 

“Obviously, what you lose in spring is how to take it to the grass and how you deal with it when failure comes, the ‘what’s next’ approach,” says Aranda, who came to Baylor fresh off a national championship as the defensive coordinator at LSU. “You lose the physicality part of it. You lose the coaches and the connections they can make with those players in a real emotional and aggressive setting. We will get to that eventually. Football will come.”

Like the rest of the athletics department, Aranda made the best of the situation and prioritized staying connected with his staff and players. They have weekly Zoom meetings that include the coaches, players and support staff.

“The advantage we have now is the one-on-one connections with our players,” Aranda says. “The ability to get to know them better, the ability to know what makes them tick, what they value, how to reach them best, how they respond to success and failure. We can get to those things. I know that our group when we meet, we spend quite a lot of time on that.”

With classes going online through summer, Baylor’s Student-Athlete Center for Excellence has continued to provide support and keep everything as close to “business as usual” as possible. 

“In the midst of all the uncertainty and the transition to working at home and having to rely on technology, we’ve really tried to be as consistent as we possibly can,” Assistant AD for Academic Services Chris Johnson says. “If we had meetings before the COVID-19 pandemic began, we will continue to have those meetings in place. We’ve tried to do that for ourselves and our students so that we’re able to remain connected and hold each other accountable in order to keep a sense of normalcy.”

While that’s certainly feasible and practical with the online tutoring sessions, it gets a little harder when it comes to providing assistance in the areas of strength training and athletic training. Dr. Laura Irvin, a primary care sports medicine physician with Southwest Sports Medicine, says phone calls have increased.

“I even FaceTimed a couple of athletes for video visits,” Irvin says. “I never thought I would be using FaceTime for that, but thankfully the medical world has been able to allow us to use whatever needed to be able to see our patients and take as best care of them as possible.”

Baylor also has a transition advisory panel of athletics performance coaches and trainers who have looked at the best options for return to play once the student-athletes come back to campus. Chris Ruf, Baylor’s director of athletics performance for Olympic sports, is part of that advisory team.

One of the case studies the panel looked at the closest was the 2011 NFL lockout that lasted nearly five months. When players finally returned to the team facilities, they had less than two weeks to prepare for the first preseason games.

“You had a record number of Achilles’ tears, ACL injuries shot through the roof and the non-contact soft-tissue injuries spiked up because they lost this whole preparatory period,” Ruf says.

As a former Division III football player at Luther College in Iowa, Ruf remembers showing up for two-a-day workouts in August and jumping right into the season two weeks later. But this is a different level.

“You can’t trick physiology. There’s an adaptation process that has to happen,” Ruf says. “The realization is that at the Power 5 level, the engines of our student-athletes and their horsepower are significantly different than what it was on your average Division III football team 20-plus years ago. We need to take that into account.

“They’re going to lose some of their horsepower. They’re not going to lose all of it, but they’re going to lose some of it. Their chassis needs to be tuned up a little bit as well before they’re able to safely unleash all that horsepower.”

The health and safety of the student-athletes, coaches and support staff have remained paramount. Charlie Melton, director of athletics performance for men’s basketball, says it’s simple: “The team that does the most and stays the best prepared during this time is going to have a marked advantage over everybody else.”