Opportunities lost: 5 Utah teams were in midst of magical seasons when coronavirus reared its head

Utah State's Sam Merrill hoist the trophy for MVP after defeating San Diego State in an NCAA college basketball game for the Mountain West Conference men's tournament championship Saturday, March 7, 2020, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken)

The Mountain West Conference basketball championships were moved by earthmovers, along with hard hat peddlers and measuring tape makers.

A construction trade show had been booked at the Thomas and Mack Center on the UNLV campus the week that most NCAA Division I basketball conferences planned their regular-season wrap-ups. As a result, MWC teams had to begin their fight for that league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament a full week and a half before Selection Sunday. At the time, it felt less than ideal for a Utah State team expected to spend an entire week in limbo, agonizing over whether the Big Dance would be in its future.

So, the Aggies made the very most of an unpalatable situation. They shocked one-loss San Diego State in the tournament title game with a 59-56 victory. Secured when senior guard Sam Merrill sunk a heavily guarded step-back 3-pointer with 2.6 seconds left, it delivered USU a second straight MWC Tournament title and, more importantly, an automatic ticket to the NCAA Tournament. As coach Craig Smith likes to say, in reference to the song played during a highlight reel at the end of each March Madness since 1987, it was Utah State’s “One Shining Moment.”

Except there were supposed to be more of them. The Aggies, much like their rivals down the road at BYU, fully expected to feature prominently in the actual post-Madness montage. They, along with the men’s volleyball team at BYU and Utah’s ski and gymnastics teams — all of which had national greatness within their grasp — were just starting to see the enormity of their potential. Then, abruptly, everything stopped. Five days after Merrill’s moment, following the disbanding of nearly every other conference basketball tournament, the NCAA announced all its winter and spring sports championships would be canceled as a precaution against the spread of COVID-19.

The Aggies now feel lucky to have had that moment. But they, like those other programs, can’t help but be tormented by the specter of an opportunity lost.

As BYU men’s basketball coach Mark Pope said of his senior-heavy squad: “You could write a book and not have enough pages to contain the extraordinary stories of this team. And while it is in a basketball sense, for this team and this locker room, it’s tragic that they didn’t have a chance to finish it.”

Who wears the crown?

The players, coaches and athletic staff all understand why sporting events can’t even be played in empty arenas, as was initially proposed, as the country grapples with how to slow the highly contagious virus that has killed more than 100 people in the United States since mid-January. Their concern for their communities numbs the sting for the time being. When the furor dies down, though, many pieces will be left on the floor.

The most glaring fallout will be national titles. Many assume a blank space will follow 2020 in the register of annual NCAA champions for all spring and a handful of winter sports. Still, it’s tempting to try to fill that void, especially for teams that were well into their seasons.

That’s why some have speculated Kansas should be crowned the NCAA men’s basketball champion. It was, after all, ranked No. 1 in what ended up being the final Associated Press Top 25 poll. Gonzaga perhaps has an even stronger claim, though, as the No. 1 team in the NCAA’s own NET rankings.

For the same reasons, it’s tempting to lobby to have a banner made for the BYU men’s volleyball team. The Cougars also finished atop the final national poll in their sport. The last team in the country to take a loss, they fell in five sets on March 6 on the road to a Hawaii team that a day earlier they beat 3-0 for the Warriors’ first loss. Nothing appeared to be in the way of BYU winning its first national crown since 2004 until COVID-19 forced the cancelation of the season six days later.

Fieldhouse JW2_7080 BYU filled the Smith Fieldhouse with 4,367 fans to watch them defeat Stanford for the MPSF Conference Championship. BYU defeated Stanford 3-0 in the Finals of the MPSF Men's Volleyball Championships hosted by Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. April 27, 2014 Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU

Still, BYU coach Sean Olmstead, who was seeking his first national title since joining the Cougars’ coaching staff in 2008, said dubbing his team the champion seems premature.

“We put together a great resume. You look at the scheduling and the timing of everything and we really got to go against some of the best teams. We can take some pride and satisfaction in that,” he said. “We had a great record against the toughest. But, nobody can really predict where this was going to go. We were all going to keep getting better and better.”

Then there’s the Utes ski team, which was smack in the middle of its national championship event in Bozeman, Mont., when the ruling came down that all NCAA competitions would cease. At the time, Utah held a 32-point lead over the University of Denver, its closest challenger. Because enough events had been completed to make it an official meet according to the sport’s bylaws, Fredrik Landstedt, Utah’s director of skiing, believes his team deserves official recognition as the NCAA champion. Landstedt conceded, though, that those rules were written to address poor weather conditions, not coronaviruses, and the NCAA may not see it the same way.

“They might interpret it differently,” Landstedt said. “If they do, they might say there is no champion.”

Missed opportunities for teams make for sad stories, but the fallout for the individual athletes might be even more gut-wrenching.

Vanished spotlight

Take for example USU’s Merrill and Neemias Queta, a sophomore center for the Aggies, and BYU senior forward Yoeli Childs. All three decided last summer to put their NBA dreams on hold so they could make one last run at the NCAA tournament. In addition to some stories to tell the grandkids, the national stage could have provided a great opportunity to catch a pro scout’s eye and improve their draft standing. That spotlight has since been shut off.

“It’s definitely an opportunity that I would have liked to have had,” Merrill said. “But like I said, there’s nothing you can do about it. So I feel like — and I’ve heard — that I helped myself out in the conference tournament. And I’ve always been a fringe guy anyway, so I was always going to have to prove myself in the pre-draft workouts and maybe the combine. So not a whole lot has changed. I just have to get myself into great shape and hopefully do some damage.”

Merrill finished the season second in career scoring for both USU and the MWC. He likely would not have moved up to the top rung even if the Aggies had managed to get three or more games in the NCAA tournament. Others, like Childs and Gabi Garcia Fernandez at BYU, meanwhile, were denied the chance to add to their bar-setting statistics. Childs set the Cougars’ career rebounding record with 1,053 and finished with more than 2,000 points. Garcia Fernandez, a junior, served the most aces in a season in school history for the men’s volleyball team. He aced his 56th during what would ultimately be the Cougars’ final match.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young Cougars forward Yoeli Childs (23) pushes past Santa Clara Broncos forward Josip Vrankic (13) in the second half as the Brigham Young Cougars host the Santa Clara Broncos at the Marriott Center in Provo, Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020. BYU won 85-75.

“I feel for him because he would’ve added to that total and maybe set a record that could’ve never been broken,” Olmstead, the BYU coach, said. “Unfortunately, we won’t get to see that.”

For Garcia Fernandez, there’s always next year — maybe.

Tomorrow is not guaranteed

The NCAA has announced it will grant an extra season of eligibility to all spring athletes who were denied the opportunity to compete. It is considering the same action for athletes in winter sports for whom no championship was held.

Merrill said he would not return for a bonus season. Childs said he would consider it.

“It’s for sure something I would think about. I love the university so much and I love my guys,” Childs said. “I feel ready for the next step, ready for an NBA roster. I feel our coaches have prepared me. But my love for the university and the team would make me think about that.”

Most of those high-achieving local teams expect to find success again next season even if the seniors collect their degrees and go. Landstedt said he sees no reason why the Utah ski team, which has won two of the past three national championships — not counting 2020 — and 11 all together would falter. It will lose only a quarter of its athletes to graduation. Same goes for a Red Rocks gymnastics team that seemed to find resilience in its youth. A group that surprised many by turning in just the second undefeated season in program history and rising to No. 4 in the nation under a first-year head coach stands to lose just two seniors.

"It hits you in the gut,” coach Tom Farden said of the missed chance at a national title, “but our fanbase has a lot to look forward to next year."

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Adrienne Randall flashes the Ute sign as she completes her floor routine as the fourth-ranked University of Utah Red Rocks gymnastics team host Stanford, Friday, March 6, 2020, at the Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City.

But even teams that can get the gang back together again aren’t guaranteed success. Knees get blown out, players get suspended and rifts rise up, as do rival programs.

USU is actually an illustration of that. Despite being helmed by a new coach, last year’s squad shot through the MWC, losing just three games on its way to the MWC regular-season (shared with Nevada) and tournament titles and its first NCAA appearance since 2011. This season in its second act, missing just two players from 2018-19, the Aggies experienced fits and starts and had to claw for their ultimate success.

That’s why, for all the seemingly stable ground that’s fallen away beneath their feet — caused by COVID-19 and not construction workers — they’re trying to focus less on the opportunities lost and more on those they seized.

“You can never overlook a championship. It’s incredible what we were able to do,” Merrill said. “It was a great experience and a really fun tournament. In hindsight with what’s happened, it’s the perfect way to go out. So we’re going to enjoy that for as long as we can.”

Tribune reporter Alex Vejar contributed to this article.