Across the NCAA, seniors were left asking "What if?" in March when the coronavirus pandemic canceled the remaining winter and spring sporting events. Here are the stories that show the sudden, complicated, controversial and emotional ending athletes have been coming to grips with over the past few weeks.
Margherita Bianchin and Federica Frasca played beach volleyball together years ago for Italy at the Under-21 European Championships, but one being from Rome and the other from Venice, the two went their separate ways after the tournament and that was that.
Until Rita Buck-Crockett unknowingly brought them together again, giving FIU beach volleyball a transcendent pair to lift the program further than ever before.
This season should have been the crowning achievement for the two-time All-Americans -- and their program too. But the cancellation of the spring season because of the coronavirus pandemic left them both stuck in South Florida wondering not only about their futures, but about what home would be like once they return.
If other senior student-athletes felt blindsided when the NCAA made the decision to stop college sports indefinitely, Bianchin and Frasca did not. Bianchin had heard about the potential devastating effects of COVID-19 from her mother, a pediatrician in Venice, and her father, in charge of risk management at a hospital outside the city.
"Even when the disease was in the first stages in Italy, my mom said, 'This is going to end bad,'" Bianchin said.
"We were like, 'Imagine if the season gets canceled, what are we going to do?'" Frasca added.
"That's why when it got here in the United States and everybody was joking about it, me and Fede were like, 'No guys, this is no joke. This is going to be bad,'" Bianchin said.
When Bianchin and Frasca talk, teammates listen. Buck-Crockett watched that firsthand during preseason practices, when she saw her star duo make an outsize impact on the way their teammates performed. Bianchin and Frasca pushed harder than they ever have, forcing everyone else to push harder, as well. They all believed they had the potential to finish in the top 8 and clinch a spot in the NCAA tournament, after falling just short a year ago.
Buck-Crockett preached the mantra, "Leave no doubt," scarred from the lessons of last season but also buoyed by the joy from 2018 -- when Bianchin and Frasca helped lead FIU to its first NCAA tournament appearance. They wanted back in.
Buck-Crockett laughs when she is asked whether she had some grand master plan when she recruited Bianchin and Frasca to come play at FIU in the first place. The truth is, she had no idea the two knew each other, let alone played together previously.
A former U.S. Olympian in indoor volleyball, Buck-Crockett played professionally in Italy, so she is the chief international recruiter for both indoor and beach disciplines. Bianchin opted to play indoor volleyball at St. John's, before realizing she hated the cold and needed to get out of the Northeast. She wanted to transfer after the fall semester in time for beach volleyball at FIU in spring 2017.
But Buck-Crockett had no scholarships, so Bianchin walked on that first season, then played both indoor and beach volleyball for FIU. Frasca opted to play in the U.S. in spring 2017 too, after starting collegiately in Rome.
It was not until Frasca looked at an email three days before her flight to Miami that she noticed a familiar name. She texted Bianchin.
"Are you going to FIU?" she asked.
"Yeah. Are you?" Bianchin replied.
"Yeah," Frasca said. "That's how we found out we were going to be together."
But they were not paired together initially. Frasca was playing on Court 1 with a different partner, until she sustained a concussion and missed several weeks. When it was time for her to return, she started back on Court 5, with Bianchin. They went 20-5 together that first year, including a 7-1 record against Conference USA opponents.
A star duo was born.
"I'm not gonna lie: Sometimes you hit it on the head; sometimes you don't," Buck-Crockett said. "Margherita is very demanding, very intense, very competitive, and my best player was Federica. So my thought process was Federica is very calm, she's mature, she speaks the language and they know each other, and I'm just going to put them together and see how it goes, and it worked out."
Buck-Crockett has been impressed with the duo's ability to lead.
"They're very competitive, goal-oriented individuals, and they do their best every single day," she said. "They're All-Americans because they just live on a different plane. And when they come in to practice, they expect everyone to be on the same level, and that's brought our team up, as well. If you don't have that type of athlete on your team, you don't know what that level's supposed to be. They planted that seed. We have a lot of young players and they follow that mold, so when they do graduate, there's someone else who can follow that role because we started that tradition and great legacy."
Bianchin and Frasca speak Italian to each other on the court, and Buck-Crockett often does too. It is a partnership that thrives because of the mutual respect they all have for one another. Plus, Bianchin and Frasca are best friends, and the way they complement each other allows them to thrive.
"Like peanut butter and jelly!" Bianchin said, prompting Frasca to laugh.
Or like pizza. Yes, with a name like Margherita and their Italian hometowns, they get that a lot. "I mean, we make great pizza, so it's fine," Bianchin said with a laugh.
After earning preseason all-conference honors, Bianchin and Frasca started out 9-0 on Court 1. "It was the best Federica and Margherita had played," Buck-Crockett said. "They would toy with people."
Still, Bianchin and Frasca felt a sense of foreboding as the season went on. Both of their hometowns went on lockdown, and both know either friends or friends of their families who have tested positive for the coronavirus.
Frasca's mother wants to be as helpful as possible, so she brings coffee to the grocery store and pharmacy workers. Bianchin's parents remain on the front lines, though cases have steeply declined over the past week, and that has provided a measure of hope.
It's hard for the two players not to worry about what is happening back home, but the only option for them after the season was canceled was to stay in South Florida. It was simply the safest choice. The two live in different apartments but sometimes go grocery shopping together or have dinner together at one of their homes.
Bianchin is trying to learn Spanish in her spare time and paints, while Frasca enjoys cooking. They're both working hard to finish up their degrees with their online classes. And that leads to the inevitable question now that the NCAA has determined spring sports seniors can have an extra year of eligibility.
Bianchin is set to graduate with a master's degree in the spring, and Frasca is due to graduate with her undergraduate degree in the fall. The NCAA left it up to each school to decide whether spring sports seniors are welcome back for another year.
Bianchin and Frasca would love to come back for a senior season redo, but they do not know just yet whether it will happen. They dream about playing for Italy in the Olympics, possibly even next summer too. If they had a message for those wondering, Bianchin offers one:
"Don't despair, because Team Pizza may be back soon."