They shall return: Utah athletes coming back next year after their spring sports seasons were wiped out by COVID-19

Steve C. Wilson | Utah athletics Freshman Alyssa Barrera plays during one of Utah softball's fall exhibitions. This season, the California native has been one of the 15th-ranked Utes' best hitters.

The NCAA has been crushed over the years for any number of bureaucratic measures, but the college sports governing body did right by its spring-sports seniors in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

On March 30, two weeks after the NCAA canceled March Madness, all other winter championships and the remainder of the spring season, it approved a blanket waiver for spring-sport athletes to get an extra year of eligibility.

Schools were under no obligation to have their seniors back, but the University of Utah left the door open for its seniors to return. Any Ute spring senior athlete opting to take advantage of the blanket waiver could do so at the same level of athletic aid they were already receiving.

Utah had 32 spring seniors playing a spring sport. Of the 32, between 10-12 of them will return. That number is in flux as some decisions remain up in the air, an athletic department spokesman told The Salt Lake Tribune.

“I had a lot of faith in my coaches, our athletic director, the whole Pac-12 community that they were going to push for that,” All-Pac-12 outfielder Alyssa Barrera told The Salt Lake Tribune via phone from her home in Chino Hills, Calif. “I didn’t have too much doubt that the senior would get that waiver.”

Utah baseball pitcher Kyle Robeniol told The Tribune, “Before the waiver, I didn’t really know what to think. Our baseball seniors, I think we all at least wanted the option to come back even if all of us weren’t going to. When they came out granting another year, it was a good decision. It was a hard decision, but I talked with my parents and coaches. I wanted to come back for one more year.”

Barrera and her teammates woke up on March 12 in Seattle amid COVID-19 uncertainty.

The Utes were to face Seattle University that night before playing three more games that weekend at No. 2 Washington. At that point, the COVID-19 pandemic was threatening to shut down sports in the United States. Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive the night before, the NBA suspended its season indefinitely as a result, and various college basketball tournaments were being altered or entirely cancelled.

That morning, as her team gathered for breakfast, Utes coach Amy Hogue delivered the news that the NCAA had canceled the remainder of spring sports amid COVID-19 concerns.

“It was definitely a shock, a bit of denial,” said Barrera, who earned her degree in strategic communications this month and will pursue a master’s degree in information systems. “Going into that last weekend, Coach A was hinting at something, she told us to really enjoy this weekend with each other because we really don’t know what might happen.

“I remember waking up the next morning still in some shock and disbelief that it was over.”

Robeniol and the baseball team were coming off taking two out of three at the University of Minnesota the weekend before cancellation. March 12 was scheduled as a travel day to Phoenix where the Utes were to play a three-game series against seventh-ranked Arizona State.

“Two weeks before the end, I’d heard about it,” said Robeniol, who earned his degree in economics. “The whole world heard about it, but I didn’t think much of it. We were about to take off for ASU and honestly, my first thought that this was probably it for me, and that was devastating.”

Not all decisions to return for another year are created equal. Some seniors have jobs lined up, so another year of school is not in the cards. Some may have injuries preventing them from continuing to play, some may simply want to move on with their lives.

For spring athletes, the financial aspect has to come into play. While revenue sports like basketball and football are considered “head-count” sports, meaning full-scholarship sports, most spring sports such as baseball and softball are “equivalency” sports, which means the available scholarships for said sports are not full and can be divided up as a coach sees fit. In turn, most spring-sport athletes are on partial scholarships. At the Division I level, there were 11.7 baseball scholarships and 12 softball scholarships for each school during the 2019-20 academic year.

To that end, Barrera and Robeniol had to decide if the financial aspect was worth it to them for another year.

“Of course that was something I did need to look out for,” Barrera said. “If they were going to offer another year and the level of aid was kind of like what I had, I didn’t want to say goodbye to the game yet. It was easy for me to say ‘yes’ to that.”

“I sat down with my mom and talked about it, laid out the pros and cons with coaches in terms of finding a job,” Robeniol said. “Baseball players don’t have full rides, scholarships are split between players, so yes, that was definitely something we had to talk about and figure out.”