On the morning of March 12, the Binghamton softball team was packed and ready to head to Lynchburg, Virginia for a tournament at Liberty University. After a promising start to the season against top competitors, the Bearcats were nearing the start of America East (AE) play and were expected to compete for a conference title. In an instant, it all came to a crushing halt.
In the early afternoon, the NCAA announced that all spring sports championships were canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, and the AE canceled all team activities for the remainder of the semester shortly thereafter. Binghamton’s student-athletes were informed that their season was over and for the seniors, it looked like they would never be able to compete again in college.
“We all came together — we were all there for each other,” pitcher Rayn Gibson said. “We went to the field following our meeting and all just hung out and just sat in the outfield and talked and tried to gather our feelings and support each other.”
Immediately, student-athletes, coaches and other supporters of collegiate athletics began lobbying the NCAA to allow an extra year of eligibility to the affected spring athletes, and on March 30, that request was granted. While the decision benefits all student-athletes, it meant the most to the seniors.
“Immediately, we were thrilled,” Gibson said. “We were all hoping that was what would happen, and then [we thought], ‘How is this going to work, though?’ There was a lot that we didn’t know that comes with getting that year back. Everyone had different plans that they were already going to do for this year. Everyone was kinda in a different spot.”
As she returned to Binghamton last month for her fifth year on campus, Gibson became one of 10 Binghamton seniors to take advantage of the NCAA’s decision.
“Personally, I was in a place where I wasn’t exactly sure what I was going to do in the year after graduating,” Gibson said. “Luckily, I was able to pick up a minor and do another school year here, and that allowed me to play.”
Gibson is joined on the softball team by her classmate, catcher Sara Herskowitz, as the only members of her senior class to be able to return this year.
“Obviously, everyone, given the chance, would jump at being able to play one last season, so that wasn’t a very hard decision for me to me to make,” Gibson said. “It just more came down to how we can make it work. Luckily, my coaches, advisers and everyone at the University were able to come up with a plan that allowed me and Sara to come back.”
Binghamton’s baseball team had the most athletes take advantage of the opportunity out of any program at the school, bringing back four key starters. Catcher TJ Wegmann, infielder Justin Drpich and outfielders Alex Baratta and Daniel Franchi all returned to the team picked to win the AE in last season’s preseason poll. Similar to softball, the team was hitting its stride as conference play neared when the season was cut short.
“We were all pretty upset about that, we were just starting to get into our season and we were just starting to win some games,” Franchi said. “We all kinda understood that it’s not just us, it’s everyone, it’s the entire country.”
Franchi and Baratta have both redshirted previous seasons and thus the pair are in a unique position as they begin their sixth year on the team. Franchi stressed the strong culture as a reason for his decision to come back.
Another factor that affects baseball players more than any other spring-sport athletes is the opportunities to play professionally. In the last several years, BU has routinely seen players drafted by major league teams or signed to independent league rosters. Franchi expressed that those opportunities played a role in many of their decisions to come back this year.
“For me for sure, and I’m sure there’s a bunch of other guys on the team that came back for that reason alone,” Franchi said. “That’s a dream, always, but just to be able to play baseball for another year, I don’t think I could’ve turned down the opportunity, having the opportunity to go pro or not.”
On the track and field team, jumper Matt Baker had just broken his own school record in the triple jump at the final indoor meet of the season. A few days later, the team was preparing for the start of its outdoor season when the announcement that college sports were suspended was released.
“[My performance] ended on a very, very high note,” Baker said. “I had a very big mental barrier and personal goal that I broke … but the momentum going into outdoor was really what I was most excited for, especially because not only myself, but a few other of my teammates were doing really well. When we found out that outdoor was canceled, we were all crushed. A lot of people had their season or career ended.”
Baker is taking advantage of his fifth year in school by enrolling in Binghamton’s one-year MBA program, hoping to work in the entertainment, sports or fashion industries. He is joined on the team by Thomas Cooper, the only other track and field returner due to the NCAA’s decision.
“A lot of people already knew that they wouldn’t be able to be here after the [school] year was done,” Baker said. “By the time it’s March, everyone has, for the most part, their next year’s plans figured out … Everyone kinda had to just come to terms with the fact that it was the end for a lot of people.”
With an unexpected chance to spend an extra year with the team, Baker hopes to be a positive role model for the young athletes as one of the most veteran athletes on the team.
“I’ve always said that I want my energy and the way that I go about track to be something that my teammates feed off of,” Baker said. “I just want to have a lasting impact; the team culture is something that my entire class built over the course of our years here. I just want to be a good example for the freshman and sophomores.”
Rounding out the returning student-athletes are two starters from women’s lacrosse, goalie Taylor Passuello and midfielder Alissa Franze. Passuello was named second-team all-conference in 2018 as a sophomore, and Franze has been a solid scoring contributor for BU over the past few seasons.
With a unique and unexpected opportunity to spend an extra year as a student-athlete at BU, the 10 athletes who chose to take advantage of it have a variety of personal and team goals in mind. After having what they thought was their final season cut short, it is clear that they’re anxious for another chance take the field and compete for the Bearcats.
“What we want to do for this year is just pick up where left off, and just leave it all out on the field,” Gibson said. “Having that taken away from you and then given back, you’re not going to take it for granted. I just want to go out every day and play with my heart, play with passion and do what I love with the people I love.”