For Many Athletes, Coronavirus Means the End of College Careers

LAS VEGAS — As the final seconds wound down, Utah State guard Sam Merrill dribbled the ball back and forth between his legs and rocked closer to the 3-point line until, with a burst, he took a hard dribble followed by a crow hop to his left. He then let fly a 25-foot jumper over the outstretched hand of San Diego State guard K.J. Feagin, who had been hounding Merrill.

The ball hit nothing but net.

Merrill’s winning shot, in the championship game of the Mountain West Conference tournament, might have portended the magical moments still ahead in March. A while later, after celebrating the Aggies’ berth in the N.C.A.A. tournament with his teammates, Merrill handed the conference tournament Most Valuable Player trophy to his father, John, who drove it back to their home in Bountiful, Utah.

This all unfolded last Saturday, when the coronavirus was a more distant concern. Now, a week later, Merrill’s shot no longer stands as a prelude to March Madness but as a coda to a truncated college basketball season — which along with all other winter and spring sports were called to an end on Thursday by the N.C.A.A. in response to the outbreak.

The end was abrupt, whether it was for basketball players like those at Creighton and St. John’s, whose Big East Conference men’s tournament game was canceled at halftime at Madison Square Garden, or for athletes in spring sports like softball and tennis, who were just getting into the meat of their seasons.

It was more than a significant singular moment for many of the athletes who saw their seasons cut short. For some, it meant the end of their playing careers.

Riley Dent, a senior outfielder for the Valparaiso baseball team, said his teammates followed the developments Thursday on Twitter as they rode a bus from Montgomery, Ala., to Hammond, La., where they were to begin a series Friday against Southeastern Louisiana.

When the team learned that its season had been suspended, the bus made a right turn toward Memphis, where the team spent Thursday night. The players expected to be back on campus by Friday night, uncertain whether they would still practice or work out.

Dent said if he continued his strong start — he has a .417 on-base percentage — he had hoped to get drafted, a dream he had chased since elementary school when his older brother, Ryan, was chosen 62nd overall by the Boston Red Sox in 2007. “I was always putting in extra work in the cage, even before middle school,” Dent said. “My brother took me through the steps, so I knew it was a lot harder than you think, but I stayed positive.”

He also was disappointed that his parents, who had planned to come from California later in the season, would not see him play one last time.

While the N.C.A.A. on Friday suggested that spring sports athletes may get an additional year of eligibility, that may not matter for many college athletes. For a baseball player, the majority of whom are on partial scholarships, it could be too expensive to play another season. And for the majority of college athletes who do not harbor professional ambitions, it may be time to get on with the working life.

For Willie Goetz, a senior rower at Cornell, the routine has been the same since the start of the school year: two practices a day for four days a week, and then another on Saturday mornings. Each night before practice, he carefully inventories how much food and water he has ingested — fuel for the next morning’s workout. Then it’s off to a room full of rowing machines for a 60- to 90-minute workout before his first class.

“It feels like all the hard work — I don’t want to say it’s for nothing, but you want to compete,” said Goetz, who will graduate in May with a degree in economics.

Goetz said a silver lining is that the cancellations have connected senior athletes — be it rowers or hockey players — through group messaging chats. With classes shut down, plans — like a cross-country sojourn — are discussed.

“This whole situation has not been something that people have gotten mad about,” Goetz said. “It’s been supportive. That’s something I didn’t expect.”

A year ago, Joe Mooney, a senior guard at the University of California-Davis, sat in the stands and watched as an older brother, Matt, authored a Cinderella story. At his third college after receiving only one Division I scholarship offer, Matt helped Texas Tech to the brink of its first national championship, losing to Virginia in overtime in the title game. Now, Matt is on a two-way contract with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

“I saw what it did for Matt — March made him,” Joe said of his brother. “That’s what it does for a players, what it does for coaches. There’s no better opportunity to make a name for yourself.”

Mooney said despite a 14-18 record and a fifth-place finish in the Big West, he believed U.C. Davis had a chance to win its way into the N.C.A.A. tournament. It would not have been his biggest long shot of the season — that came when Mooney sank a half-court shot at the buzzer to beat Loyola Marymount.

Instead, the Aggies learned as they laced up their shoes for a morning shootaround on Thursday that the N.C.A.A. tournament was being canceled. Mooney said he broke down when talking to the team.

“I love my team, I love my coaches, I love my staff,” Mooney said. “I was really excited about going out the right way, but I didn’t get to go down fighting.”

The Swarthmore College basketball team had far better odds of reaching Atlanta, the city that was hosting not only the Final Four, but also the Division II and Division III championships. The Garnet, which reached the Division III championship game last season, were the top-seeded team in this year’s tournament and had reached the round of 16.

Zac O’Dell, a senior captain, said it was a strange sensation when his teammates gathered Thursday night to commiserate and realized there was no basketball to watch. O’Dell, who will pursue a doctorate in chemistry, told his teammates he will remember the fun they had far more than the points he scored or the games they won.

“This was it for me — it’s all over,” O’Dell said. “I’ll be playing in some local men’s leagues.”

Nadia Fingall, a senior forward at Stanford who hopes to play in the W.N.B.A. or overseas, heard about the tournament cancellation in a group message among her teammates. She wasn’t surprised, not after all the postponements by the professional leagues, yet she still felt stunned.

The team, ranked seventh in the country, soon met for a scheduled practice that became a farewell gathering. Fingall took her usual seat, the one she had chosen as a freshman and, in accordance with a team tradition, kept for four years. Back row, second seat.

“That’s when it really hit me,” she said. “I realized that was the last time I was going to sit in that seat.”

The end was easier to take, Fingall said, because of the relationships she had built with her teammates.

“Even though our senior year was cut short, I’m comforted by the fact that I will know them all for the rest of my life,” she said. “They’re part of my family now.”

Merrill and the rest of the Utah State basketball team seemed to be hitting their stride at just the right time. They were a cohesive unit of role players with a shot-blocking center, Neemias Queta, and Merrill making clutch shots.

As they celebrated their win over San Diego State, which had been in line for a No. 1 seed in the N.C.A.A. tournament, the Aggies — like a great number of teams in one of the most wide-open seasons in years — saw a world of possibilities ahead.

“We really felt like we had an opportunity,” Merrill said on Friday.

When he was reminded of a remark he made after his game-winning shot — “Well, I hope there’s a few more”— Merrill said he thought that at worst, the games would be played without fans, as the N.C.A.A. had said Wednesday evening.

The disappointment was beginning to abate by Friday, and he appreciated that while canceling the tournaments may not be best for the players, it is best for many others across the United States and beyond. He also began to cherish even more what happened only last Saturday, what felt like a lifetime ago.

“Especially now that we learned that it was our last game, as hard as it is, you couldn’t ask for a better way to go out,” Merrill said, thankful that unlike many others, his last shot is well worth remembering.

Gwen Knapp contributed reporting.