Sudden cancellation of fall sports hits hard for Ohio State coaches, athletes

Adam Jardy
Ohio State field hockey coach Jarred Martin said his team began practices on Monday. "To have the team back, to be able to start something, whether it's lifting, running, hockey, I think we were just appreciative of that," he said.

The offseason had been navigated, and Brian Maisonneuve was ready to see some passing and tackling.

Tuesday afternoon, the Ohio State men’s soccer coach was preparing to get his players onto the field for their first training session of the year when he got the news. The season that they, along with six other fall sports teams, had been hoping for was officially off.

That left Maisonneuve and his fellow coaches throughout the university the job of handling the disappointment, trying to provide some positivity and trying to support their players as best they can as the COVID-19 pandemic continues and the start of classes looms at Ohio State.

“It’s an experience like no other,” said Maisonneuve, entering his third year with the program.

That sentiment is shared by coaches in the same spot. Along with men’s soccer, the field hockey, men’s and women’s cross country, women’s volleyball, women’s soccer and football teams are all facing the reality of no season and the difficult decisions that must be made going forward, including potentially competing in the spring. Athletic director Gene Smith delivered the news to coaches in a quick Tuesday phone call before the news went public that afternoon.

The postponement of the season hit each team in different stages of their ramping up toward resuming competition, but many were looking at a rough starting date of the weekend of Sept. 11. Most women’s soccer players arrived on campus in June for voluntary workouts before beginning formal practice Aug. 4, and the team had scheduled a scrimmage against the University of Cincinnati for Wednesday.

Instead, coach Lori Walker-Hock was having individual meetings with seniors who have to make tough decisions about what might come next.

“I am so proud of how they have approached the whole time away, last semester, beginning on the 16th of March to the day that they arrived,” she said. “They have done everything we have asked of them, whether that was wear a mask, wash your hands, start to restrict your social circle – which for young college kids, that’s asking a lot. They have, and they’ve created a bubble.”

Jen Flynn Oldenburg, hired in January as women’s volleyball coach, was able to have five spring practices before the sports calendar was shut down in March. Her players arrived on campus Aug. 6 and were preparing to get Tuesday’s practice underway when text messages from friends at other Big Ten schools started coming in saying their practices had been canceled.

Her message: Until we hear it from athletic director Gene Smith, it’s not official. So let’s go practice as hard as we can and find a way to get better today. And they did.

“You kind of knew what was coming,” Oldenburg said. “It didn’t make it that much easier, because it’s still an abrupt end. For these kids, it’s probably the toughest day they’ve had in their lives, but it’s how you respond to it.”

As the coach of both the men’s and women’s cross country teams, former Olympian Khadevis Robinson had double the responsibility of delivering the news. Adding to the challenge was the fact that his runners hadn’t yet officially assembled as a team.

“You’re talking about some individuals that come from other countries,” he said. “If they have aspirations of making an Olympic team, and they’re deciding to come to school and be here in early August but they don’t know if the season is going to be canceled … We held off to see how everything was going to look, how safe it was going to be.”

Field hockey coach Jarred Martin likened the situation to a dark cloud that won’t fully go away for some time. His team began practicing Monday and hadn’t even taken photographs of the freshmen for the official roster page on the website.

“I think we were all just excited to have the group back and on campus,” he said of the team’s first few practices. “The energy was great. To have the team back, to be able to start something whether it’s lifting, running, hockey, I think we were just appreciative of that.”

Each coach expressed his or her appreciation for the fact that teams are allowed to continue training in the absence of competition, something that wasn’t an option when spring sports were canceled. Players also have the option to opt out of practicing.

Academic support services will remain unchanged, as will access to mental health resources and help with scheduling classes. Similarly, without prompting, each coach cited an appreciation for Smith’s leadership and willingness to fight for their seasons.

“I think that means something,” Robinson said. “To me, that’s the message: We were all in this with you. We were all willing to fight for a season, but your health is more important.”

Once the news hit, Maisonneuve canceled Tuesday’s practice but still saw some of his players take to the field to practice. Wednesday, the full team reconvened for a normal training session.

Oldenburg said her players let out some tears and frustration Tuesday before getting back to business as well.

Walker-Hock said her team’s younger players got an important lesson in the mind-set needed to excel when they saw her upperclassmen return to practice with the consistent level of enthusiasm needed to navigate tough times.

The bitterness will eventually wear off. The tears will stop. Things will eventually get back to normal, once the virus is under control. And when they do, there will be a lot of motivated athletes ready to compete once again.

“It stings, but we’re still here,” Oldenburg said. “We can still train. We can still get better. And you still get a great education.”


Ohio State men's soccer coach Brian Maisonneuve.