WASHINGTON, PA (May 5, 2020) – Michael Heinl and Hunter Neely were at the 2020 NCAA Division III Wrestling Championships in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, ready to cap off stellar collegiate wrestling careers when the announcement came: the Championships were canceled, due to Coronavirus.
The Washington & Jefferson College seniors had wrestled since their freshman year, racking up accolades along the way. They’d helped lead the Presidents to the team title at the PAC Wrestling Championships in February – the wrestling team’s first PAC team title since 1999 – and were ready for the next step. But then, everything changed.
“At first I just couldn’t believe it. I was in shock,” Heinl said. “Then I started thinking about all the months of hard work and sacrifice that went into the season. Everything was for the NCAA tournament and now we wouldn’t have the chance to go out and compete. I can’t even explain what I was feeling.”
Knowing that many students missed out on finishing senior seasons with their teammates, the W&J Athletic Department has been honoring seniors each week with Spring Sports Senior Recognition posts on the W&J Athletics website, and on social media. Coaches are holding teams together, too.
Head wrestling coach Tommy Prairie knows that this semester is really tough. He leads individual and team checkups each week via Zoom, and used the platform to give away awards from the season. Team members are on individual workout plans based on the equipment they have access to at home, and Prairie checks in regularly to make sure they’re on track athletically and academically.
Prairie said his athletes are upbeat on group chats, but he knows the seniors have been affected more than others this season. The end of their college athletic career feels anticlimactic, and they’re experiencing an unprecedented feeling of being “in-between.”
“Most of them said their dorm rooms are exactly as they left them before break, but they know they will never live in them again,” Prairie said. “They are stuck in a place where they cannot move onto the next step in their lives, but are not really in college anymore.”
Lacrosse player Jenna Allen knows how this feels. She said she never thought she’d miss her residence hall room, but now would give just about anything for some more time there with her friends and teammates.
“As a senior, I always knew the day would come where I would have to say goodbye to the sport I love and the school that changed my life, but I didn’t realize that it would come in early March,” she said. “From losing our season, to not having professors there in person to help with an assignment, it has definitely been a big change from the last four years.”
For these students, their coaches and teammates have kept them going, bringing comfort, support and routine to an unusual semester. Allen, who lives in Florida, said she always leaned on her team to be her family away from home, and is grateful the coaches have been making the effort to keep everyone together. Her lacrosse coach, Alison Valerio, uses GroupMe to stay connected, joining her team for online workouts, holding individual check-ups and team meetings, and celebrating what would have been Senior Day.
“I love being able to see my teammates and hear them talk about their weeks, even if not much is going on,” Allen said. “I think this time would be a lot harder if I didn’t have them.”
Heinl agreed. “They’re my second family and I’m so grateful to know them,” he said. “I still don’t feel closure to my wrestling career, but I know I’m prepared for the next part of my life. My family, teammates and coaches have prepared me for my true goal – not to just be a champion in wrestling, but to be a champion in life.”
This article is part of Thriving Together, a series of articles and videos showcasing the ways in which W&J community members are adapting to new situations and supporting each other during this unprecedented time. Read other articles in the series in the W&J News Section.
About Washington & Jefferson College
Washington & Jefferson College, located in Washington, Pa., is a selective liberal arts college founded in 1781. Committed to providing each of its students with the highest-quality undergraduate education available, W&J offers a traditional arts and sciences curriculum emphasizing interdisciplinary study and independent study work. For more information about W&J, visit www.washjeff.edu, or call 888-W-AND-JAY.