COVID-19 shatters championship dreams

Greg Gaxiola improves to 3-1 this season while getting the Bulldogs’ most dominant decision of the season against Rutgers’ Gerald Angelo on Friday, November 15, 2019 at the Save Mart Center. (Armando Carreno/The Collegian)

It has been 13 days since the NCAA canceled all of the remaining 2020 spring and winter championships due to concerns of COVID-19 and one week since the Fresno State wrestling team was set to participate in the championship at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minn.

 The Bulldogs had five wrestlers qualify for the tournament: heavyweight Josh Hokit, 141-pounder DJ Lloren, 133-pounder Lawrence Saenz, 157-pounder Jacob Wright and 149-pounder Greg Gaxiola.

All these wrestlers went from anticipating the biggest matches of their lives to self-quarantine in isolation like many Americans.

 “It has affected my everyday life, as well as everyone else, but there’s not much we can do. We just have to make the best out of this situation,” said Gaxiola. “I never expected that this panic would cause such a standstill throughout the entire world. These are the things most people see only in movies, but to live during this time is crazy because this has never happened before.”

 Leading up to the tournament, there were rumblings throughout collegiate sports and conversations within the NCAA that the upcoming tournaments, including the wrestling championships, would be taking place in empty arenas across the country.

“We were told the championship would have no fans, and at first I was bummed about that, but I was extremely excited to still be going,” Wright said.

Gaxiola was under the same impression that although they would not be performing in front of fans, they would still be able to complete their season at nationals.

“Originally I assumed that the tournament would proceed with limited to no fans,” Gaxiola said. “Honestly, even though it would be different, as long as you put two wrestlers on a mat that have something to prove, you’re always going to have fireworks and a show.”

But the conversation of cancelation quickly escalated the next day.

Numerous athletic conferences and colleges across the nation, including Fresno State, suspended all spring sports competitions indefinitely, and many other conferences and programs followed suit.

“The health and safety of our student-athletes, staff and campus community are the number one priority during this unprecedented time,” Director of Athletics Terry Tumey said in a statement. “While we understand the uncertainty that many of our student-athletes, staff, and community members may be experiencing, Fresno State Athletics is committed to providing a safe environment that helps ensure the well-being of our campus community. We will continue to work alongside our campus leadership and public health officials to determine the best course of action as we move forward.”

Hours later, following Tumey’s statement, the NCAA informed all collegiate athletic programs would be canceled indefinitely. And in an instant, the five qualifying Fresno State wrestlers had their opportunities for glory swept from underneath them.

“I was shocked. Completely in disarray because…the hard work and suffering I went through the entire season and the sacrifices an athlete makes every day, weekends and even special occasions,” Gaxiola said. “The tournament that means everything to every wrestler, that can make dreams come true, was just canceled left me disappointed with questions that couldn’t be answered by anybody.”

Gaxiola earned the No. 32 in the NCAA tournament with a 20-10 overall record after finishing fifth in the Big 12 Championship due to a forfeit. This year’s tournament would’ve marked the first appearance for the redshirt junior and Clovis native.

For his teammate, Wright, this year’s championships would’ve also been the first of his career following a 24-9 overall record and a fifth-place finish in the Big 12 Championship. The redshirt sophomore said he was ready to make an impact on the national stage.

“I felt I was in the best shape of my life… I got fifth and qualified for nationals, and felt very confident I was going to piece everything together and have a great tournament in Minneapolis,” Wright said. “Beyond my goal of being an All-American I wanted to have a dominating performance at nationals. I saw my spot in the bracket and I had a great spot in my opinion…I thought being an All-American was very possible which is something I have worked for my entire life.”

 “I ran through a lot of emotions when I found out nationals were canceled, anger, sadness, emptiness, frustration and for a brief time, happiness that I could finally eat a bad meal. There was only one time before I missed out on a postseason, which was in high school,” Wright said.

The reasoning behind the last time he missed a postseason was due to a season-ending injury. At first, he said that the feeling he had then was akin to that of the ones he is feeling now, but now he feels that this situation is a bit different.

“However in this instance, it was not just me that did not get an opportunity, it was every qualifier in the country, which was extremely unique and made me feel better that this is something the entire sports world is dealing with, so I am not alone,” Wright said.

Fresno State wrestling head coach Troy Steiner addressed the abrupt ending of the season in a social media statement on March 16.

“It is tough to hear about the cancellation of the NCAA championships. The work our athletes have put in to have this opportunity only to have it taken away in a second,” Steiner said. “We are reminded again that things do not always happen as we would like or within our time frame. The control is never ours.”

The NCAA is in control of the future of how its student-athletes play out. The governing body of all collegiate sports will now be tasked with figuring out how to handle the eligibility of the student-athletes under its umbrella in this time of crisis.

On March 13, the eight-member NCAA Division I Council announced that it would be allowing eligibility relief that was “appropriate for all Division I student-athletes who participated in spring sports.” The council is set to vote on the matter of eligibility relief on March 30.

 While this relief is beneficial for spring sport athletes, wrestling is under the classification of a winter sport. During its discussion, the council plans to address how to support winter sports athletes who also had their season swept from underneath them, but there have been reports that it is unlikely they will be granted another year of eligibility.

This means that four of the five wrestlers will not only have to wait another year to have an opportunity to become All-Americans and battle for a national championship, but this season was all for naught. And for Hokit, an All-American in 2019, this year’s tournament was his last chance for the senior to become a national champion. He was robbed of one final match as a Bulldog.

“I’ve talked to some of my teammates about the situation and there is not much to do or say about it but just, ‘I’m sorry for what happened and I’m here if you need me,’” said Gaxiola. “It’s [not competing] been tough for my teammates who qualified because for most of us it was going to be our first time competing at the national tournament and for us not even going to see the arena we were going to compete in is just a heartbreaker for us.”

Wright is in the camp that, although it is great that the spring sports may get an opportunity for another year of eligibility, he believes that those in the winter sports should also be given that luxury or at the very least, all of the NCAA qualifiers.

 “..I’m sorry, but we don’t compete in a regular season to not have a championship tournament to find out who is the best…Without a championship, the season is incomplete and so is the history of the tournament,” Wright said. “As a result, I believe it is necessary qualifiers of all championship winter sports should get a year of eligibility back, if the NCAA cared about the student-athletes that are what they would do.”

Around the country, there is a consensus that many athletes at the high school, collegiate and professional level had their seasons and for some, the apex of their career, taken away from them. But there is also an understanding that the current concerns of COVID-19 supersede sports.

 On March 19, Tumey penned a letter to the Fresno State fan base speaking on the abrupt ending to the seasons of many student-athletes at the university. In the letter, he expressed his sympathy for the athletes, but explained the reasoning for the cancelations and showed his support for the decisions made.

“I hurt for our student-athletes. As someone who has witnessed the hard work and dedication our student-athletes commit every day in the pursuit of athletic excellence, it was upsetting to see their seasons end so abruptly,” said Tumey. “With the evolving COVID-19 public health threat, I understand the need to ensure that we do not contribute to the spread of the pandemic and protect all of the people involved in our programs.”

 Despite the massive disappointment of having a season cut short, it was a decision that many understood as a necessity to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, especially by Gaxiola who believes this is bigger than sports.

“To cancel all sports we must understand that COVID-19 is bigger than sports as of this moment, this is a world-wide epidemic that should be taken seriously with caution,” Gaxiola said. “So, if the NCAA feels the need to cancel all current sports than as athletes we must comply, but should be given information soon on the next steps for our athletic college careers.”

As of now both Wright and Gaxiola are now in self-quarantine like millions of others due to COVID-19 concerns and for Wright, this means that he is now back in his hometown of Dinuba. Being at home and with his family has put things in perspective and has him embracing positivity.

“The quarantine, of course, is not normal for me or anyone. Overall this entire shutdown of sports, schools and business has really shocked me, I don’t think anyone saw this coming,” Wright said. “While my normalcy has been disturbed, I have found things in my life to be grateful for, and I’m using this time to finish this last semester in school strong, improve my relationship with God and enjoy the time I’m getting with my family.”

Gaxiola also understands the severity of the crisis but hopes that all will persevere through these tough times.

“To live during this time is crazy because this has never happened before,” Gaxiola said. “I hope the best for all of us and would like to say tough times never last but tough people do.”

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