Both The Master’s University’s men’s and women’s basketball programs concluded their respective seasons and conference tournaments destined for NAIA Division 1 postseason tournament berths. On Thursday morning, reality became a nightmare when the NAIA announced that they will be canceling all remaining winter championship events as a result of the rapid spread of the coronavirus.
“I was actually on the phone on a conference call with all the coaches getting ready for the tournament with NAIA officials and everything at about 8:30 this morning,” said Mustangs men’s basketball head coach Kelvin Starr. “About 15 minutes later I got a text from one of our guys who had seen it on Twitter that they had canceled it.”
Making an appearance for the fourth consecutive season, TMU’s men’s team finished tied for second place going 13-5 in Golden State Athletic Conference play with a 23-8 overall record.
“It’s pretty shocking, but I get why,” Starr said. “I understand the precautions that they are taking, but my heart breaks for those seniors on my team that have invested so much. They have put so much into it and their seasons are cut short. There’s more to life than basketball, we understand that, for sure, but it’s a big part of these guys’ lives. At the end of the day, there’s a bigger picture to look at. Hopefully, the cancellations of these things help stop the spread of the virus and it helps the big picture.”
The men’s team received an at-large bid with a No. 5 seed and would have faced No. 4 seed and fellow at-large team, University of Cumberlands.
“It’s hard to end it, but what makes it really hard was that the seed was a good seed and it was a good draw for us,” Starr said. “It is what it is. Life goes on and those guys will move onto the next chapter in their lives. Hopefully, some of them will be able to play professional basketball and they have learned some good lessons. I feel like we have built a life-long relationship through athletics and we can continue to mentor them as time goes on and be available to them.”
Three of the four seniors on the team – Tim Soares, Brock Gardner and Darryl McDowell-White – have been at the forefront of the program’s success and exit the program with their heads held high, albeit in shocking fashion.
Soares was named the GSAC Defensive Player of the Year for the third straight year and Gardner was an All-GSAC selection for the first time in his career.
The three were the top scorers for the Mustangs this season as Gardner averaged 19.2 points and 7.2 rebounds per game and Soares was second with 18.7 points and first on the team with 8.4 rebounds per game. McDowell-White was third in scoring averaging 13.5 points and almost four rebounds per game.
“It was a good year,” Starr said. “It was a tough year to end it this way because we have a group of guys who have been with us for a long time, particularly Tim (Soares), Brock (Gardner), Darryl (McDowell-White) and Mike (Taylor). Tim has been here since I got here so it’s kind of the ending of an era with him and that crew, they have won a lot of games together.
The women’s team would be making their eighth straight trip to the tourney, a program record for any sport, earning another program-record 29 wins to go with three losses. All came against fellow GSAC and NAIA Division 1 postseason contenders.
“I felt sorrow for my kids, for my team after such an amazing year and for my seniors,” said TMU women’s head coach Dan Waldeck. “It was sorrow mixed with a responsibility to be wise. I get it, I’m just hurt for those kids because they can’t get that back. We want to be part of a solution, erring on the side of caution is wisest. Although we want to play, we get it.”
Waldeck and the Mustangs were awarded a No. 2 seed and drew No. 7 seeded Philander Smith College, the Gulf Coast Athletic Conference Tournament Champion, who would be making the NAIA tournament for the first time in school history.
Three Mustangs – Stephanie Soares, Anika Neuman and Hannah Ostrom – earned postseason awards. Ostrom and Neuman were named to the All-GSAC team, while Soares became the first GSAC women’s hoops player to earn the Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season more than once.
Soares led the country in blocks (151) and rebounds (423) and finished second in scoring (20.7 ppg). Neuman averaged 10.2 and 5.2 rebounds per game and will return to the team next year along with Soares.
But for Ostrom, the lone senior of the trio who finished the season averaging 10.4 points and 4.7 rebounds per game, her Mustangs’ career has come to an end.
“A kid like her, who came back from injury this year and just had a phenomenal year, finished so well,” Waldeck said. “There are no other words, it’s just really disappointing. All of those kids, all those seniors and all of our players probably felt for the seniors. They have given so much to our program and it’s one thing to have your season cut seemingly short if you are waiting for a bid and you don’t get it or something. But to be arguably one of the favorites to win a National Championship and to have that cut short, it’s a tough pill to swallow.”