Last Thursday, Cornell women's hockey coach Doug Derraugh was preparing for Big Red's NCAA quarterfinal game against Mercyhurst. The plan was to use the team meeting to discuss the penalty kill, and then get on the ice. But 15 minutes before the team meeting, Cornell's associate athletic director Anita Brenner came to Derraugh's office to deliver the news: the season was canceled.
Of course, in the back of Derraugh's head, he knew this was a possibility. The coronavirus had spread to the United States. One night earlier, the NBA announced one of its players tested positive and the league was suspending the season. There was bound to be a ripple effect. Derraugh was trying his best to stay focused and proceed as if his season would continue. So when he met with his players, he really didn't have much preparation.
"That was a pretty tough conversation," Derraugh said.
The coach tried to put a positive spin on it. They were lucky they got to play most of the season. He reminded them about how much they had accomplished already; they went undefeated in ECAC play. No Cornell women's hockey team had ever finished the regular season ranked No. 1, until this year.
"I said, 'You're probably not going to hear a whole lot of what I'm about to say right now,'" Derraugh recalled. "And quite honestly, most of them were in tears."
Both the Cornell men's and women's hockey teams were ranked No. 1 in their respective polls entering the postseason when all NCAA winter and spring sports championships were canceled. The women's team had never won an NCAA title, and the men were looking to break a 50-year-drought. This spring presented some of their best chances.
"You know, the tears, you see that every year -- but usually it's because you are defeated. This was because of the unknown," Cornell men's coach Mike Schafer said. "I think they're in a better place now because of what they've seen across the world and around the country, but in the moment it was difficult."
It was especially hard for the senior class.
"We have a kid, Jeff Malott, who had torn his ACL last year in the [ECAC] championship game, and fought and got himself all the way back, and played the whole season, and was really looking forward to performing in the postseason," Schafer said. "It was very difficult to see for those young men. But also, as I'm talking here, I'm almost embarrassed to be talking about what's going on. But at the moment, it was very, very difficult for those young guys. ... As a coach you know you're going to be around, hopefully, for a while longer to build again, but for these guys, it's it for them."
The NCAA is mulling over eligibility relief for spring sports athletes, and there has been some chatter that it could extend to winter sports, too. That's especially of note for seniors at Cornell, as Ivy League athletes are not allowed to participate as graduate students. Schafer says he is hoping it can happen for the spring sports athletes, but he's not sure it's a feasible expectation for hockey. The Cornell men had three seniors: Noah Bauld, Yanni Kaldis and Malott.
"I don't know if I see it for our winter athletes, for a lot of different reasons," Schafer said. "They played the whole season. And for us at Cornell, is a kid going to come back and pay all of that money? They don't have a scholarship. So if they had to pay the whole way, are they going to pay $72,000 a year for another opportunity, especially when some of them have jobs waiting for them in New York City, to begin their life?"
Derraugh, however, thought it could be a possibility for some players on his team. The Cornell women had six seniors this season: Jaime Bourbonnais, Amy Curlew, Grace Graham, Paige Lewis, Kristin O'Neill, and Micah Zandee-Hart.
"We met [on Friday] and there were starting to be conversations circulating that they were going to give an extra year of eligibility to the spring sports and potentially an extra year for seniors in the winter sports," Derraugh said. "And certainly all of my seniors were excited about that, and were interested in having that opportunity. How all of the logistics would work out, especially in the Ivy League, I'm not sure how all that would work itself out.
"For our team, we were heavily reliant on our senior class and this was our year to potentially fight for the national championship. And so it's certainly devastating for our seniors. And if there was any way that they could have another opportunity at it, I'm sure that they would be interested in that for sure."
For now, the coaches are getting ready for the unknown.
One of the hardest things for Schafer is the thought of not being able to have closure on the season face-to-face with his athletes; exit interviews will be conducted with coaches over video conference. Derraugh mentioned he doesn't know when he's permitted to get on the road to start recruiting again, and whether Cornell will be able to have its summer camps and showcases, which are often where the team recruits. The cancellation of springtime ACTs and SATs for players applying for 2021-22 is another variable. And if the seniors do come back, Derraugh is not sure how that will shape his roster for next season.
The coach said he was sure that would sort itself over time, though the sting of how this season ended would remain.
"Everyone in and around the program builds for these opportunities, and it doesn't come along very often," Schafer said. "But at the same time ... we were ranked No. 1, but that doesn't really guarantee us anything. It just guarantees us a good shot. So we've got to move on, and not dwell on the 'what ifs' and start to look forward to the following year.
"That's a life lesson for us in athletics. You can't dwell on what could have been or what should have been. You've got to park it and move on. That will be a little tougher than normal this time, but it's something we're used to on a year-by-year basis."