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Area college athletes ‘devastated,’ look ahead

College athletics

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LaSalle-Peru graduate Rachel Hickey is typically extremely motivated when it comes to her running career.

Since learning her redshirt freshman outdoor track and field season at Illinois State University was canceled due to the coronavirus outbreak, it’s been a little more challenging.

“It’s definitely taken a couple days to process really what this means. I’m starting to feel like I’m just destined to never run outdoors in college,” said Hickey, who missed last outdoor season due to a stress fracture. “It’s been tough to find motivation to get out the door these last couple days. I think over time it will get better and over time become a little bit more normal, but for now, it’s still really tough for me and my teammates.”

College athletes across the country at all levels are dealing with similar emotions after the NCAA canceled all spring sports championships.

Illinois sophomore pitcher Ty Rybarczyk, a Hall graduate, said he was “devastated” when he learned his first season with the Fighting Illini was ending prematurely.

Rybarczyk and his teammates, including fellow Hall graduate Cam McDonald, went into practice Thursday knowing their weekend series at Southern Illinois University was in jeopardy.

They learned after practice their weekend series was off, and while in the locker room, Rybarczyk got a text from a teammate who heard from a friend at Northwestern that the Big Ten Conference had cancelled athletics for the rest of the school year.

“Immediately, my heart sunk,” Rybarczyk said. “When I read it, I had to read it back again because you think that could never happen, but it did. It’s really crazy, but necessary in order to preserve the health of the athletes and everyone else.”

Rybarczyk, who pitched at Parkland College last season, was disappointed he wouldn’t get the opportunity to bounce back from a rough outing in his last appearance when he gave up six runs on seven hits in 2 1/3 innings.

For the season, he made four appearances with two starts. He had a 4.41 ERA while allowing 19 hits with 11 strikeouts and five walks in 16 1/3 innings.

“I was looking forward to finishing my season and finishing the way I wanted,” Rybarczk said. “I didn’t leave off on the best of notes. It was not my best outing by any means. I was looking forward to bouncing back from that and continuing to do what I’m capable of and what I’ve been doing my whole life.

“I was upset at first, but I’m just going to use this time as a period for me to get bigger and stronger and come back better and be dominant next year.”

St. Bede graduate and Illinois sophomore hurdler Bret Dannis said it’s difficult after putting so much work into training.

“It was something that we saw coming, but I kind of didn’t want to believe it,” Dannis said. “It was difficult to hear that the season was going to be canceled knowing how hard the team had been training all fall.”

For St. Bede graduate Maty Nowakowski it was especially difficult because she is a senior softball player at Beloit College.

Nowakowski and her teammates got back from a spring trip to Florida on Saturday with a 6-4 record and were told in a meeting Saturday afternoon the school was going online only for the rest of the semester and there would be no athletics.

“It’s a lot to wrap my head around,” Nowakowski said. “What kept going through my mind was growing up I was always told, ‘Play like it’s your last game, you never know when it’s going to be.’ When I was younger I was like, ‘Yea, OK, whatever.’ When we were down in Florida and found out it was a possibility they were our last few games, I thought back on that saying and it really kind of hit hard.

“Being a senior made it even tougher, and even tougher yet is we were playing really well in Florida after having a tough season last year.”

Moving forward

Rybarczyk is planning to return to his old stomping grounds at Kirby Park in Spring Valley and he anticipates he may see some other former Red Devils there, such as McDonald along with Jimmy DeAngelo and Brant Vanaman, whose season at Parkland College is suspended until early April at least.

“Right now, I’m going home and I’m going to be home for I don’t know how long,” Rybarczyk said. “I’m just going to train, keep up my throwing program and just get better for next season. That’s my main focus now is next season because this season is over. Maybe I’ll play summer ball somewhere, but that’s up in the air still.

“I’m sure (my former teammates) will be around. We’ll be down at Kirby throwing. I’m sure they’ll be down there hitting. I’ll be at the local gyms getting my work in.”

Dannis, who medaled in the Big Ten Conference Indoor meet, plans to head back to Champaign when he’s able.

“I plan on moving back down to Champaign for the remainder of the semester to take advantage of training facilities, academic assistance and faster speed internet to stream lectures,” Dannis said.

With her playing career likely over, Nowakowski is looking forward to passing on her love for the game to the younger generation as a coach.

“It’s not a goodbye forever (to softball),” said Nowakowski, who is an education major. “I’ll have to look at the game from a different angle whether that’s coaching or giving back to the game in general.

“I played travel ball growing up and about all that time my dad was the coach. He played a pretty big role in my softball career, so helping pass that love of the game and positive energy on to younger kids is something I definitely want to do. I’m going into education, so it fits nicely with that career.”

Another year

The NCAA announced Friday that spring athletes who had their season canceled would be granted another year of eligibility, but details of the plan still have to be ironed out.

“I do plan on taking advantage of the extra year of eligibility,” Dannis said. “I’m going to use the year to start my Master’s. The extra year does help ease the sting a little, but it still doesn’t feel good. I especially feel sorry for the seniors who have jobs lined up and have no choice but to give up their athletic careers.”

Rybarczyk expects to play another year as well.

“It’s nice knowing this year is not completely wasted and we get another year,” Rybarczyk said.

Hickey, on the other hand, wasn’t as sure.

“The problem is I don’t know if I want to be 24 and still going to college,” Hickey said. “It also depends on what the funding looks like for that. We don’t know anything about scholarships. We really don’t know what any of this means. It’s never been seen before, so it’s kind of hard to tell right now.”

Whether she takes advantage of the extra year or not, Hickey plans to keep working toward her next opportunity to run.

“To everybody out there going through this — the athletes and everybody really — keep your head up and understand this is something we can’t control. It’s just one of those things. You have to keep working hard for the next opportunity and never take one for granted.” 

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