At this point, Travis Owen is capable of thinking about next season.
It took a while for the Minnesota Crookston softball coach to get there. Usually, you have a rough idea of when your season will come to an end. But when the Golden Eagles left the field after a loss to Fort Hayes State on Mar. 1, none of them had any idea they had just played their last game.
UMC had been set to travel to Florida on Mar. 14 to play eight games in five days. But that same week, the sports world was shaken rapidly by the COVID-19 pandemic, which ultimately led to the NCAA’s cancellation of all remaining sporting events the rest of the year.
“It all happened so quickly,” Owen reflected last Wednesday, speaking by phone. “It was almost hour-by-hour.”
That suddenness made it impossible to process all at once. Instead of boarding a plane, the Golden Eagles were texting, calling and FaceTiming one another, trying somehow to come to terms with what had just occurred.
What made it even tougher was that Minnesota Crookston was aware of its potential. The Golden Eagles went 13-41 in 2019, Owen’s first season — disheartening all by itself, but a program record regardless. And with Owen’s own recruits starting to trickle in, and the returners knowing what to expect, Owen knew that UMC could build off its record and then some, and “that wasn’t necessarily gonna be the biggest thing that we do.”
The Golden Eagles had their sights on making the NSIC Tournament, which would have required finishing 10th or higher in the conference standings in the regular season. They shut out Bemidji State, 9-0, to begin the season, and beat Minot State 12-0 and Mary 7-4 in Minot on Feb. 22 to improve to 6-4. In the context of the program, UMC’s potential was limitless, enough that a six-game losing streak heading into Florida hardly dampened the enthusiasm.
“Just the fact that we could be competitive with anybody,” Owen said. “Says a lot about them and how they’ve bought into everything, and how they’ve worked hard and turned things around.”
There were accomplishments of note, too: senior right-hander Paige Pitlick had struck out 61 batters in 43.2 innings, setting a program record for strikeouts in the process. Senior Malia Pula was hitting over .500 for much of the season. Cassie Querry, a junior catcher in her first year with with the Golden Eagles, had an OPS of 1.193 with four homers and 17 RBI, winning NSIC Player of the Week for the week of Feb. 16-23. Owen took great pride in the latter as a bellwether of sorts — NSIC Players of the Week don’t often come from Crookston.
But for the last two weeks, all that’s taken a backseat.
Once they arrived at the point where “next season” is even appropriate to think about, Owen and his staff had to get creative. They can’t meet athletes in person, but have still tried to check up as best they can. The club tournaments in the early summer, where they’d typically recruit, might not even happen. Instead, Owen and his staff have had to rely mostly on video and phone calls.
But the biggest challenge for Owen was breaking the news to his team. He feels especially for the Golden Eagles’ seniors: Pitlick, Pula, Tavia Lawson, Samantha Proctor and Mika Rodriguez. His message to all of his players has been the same, but has checked up on the aforementioned group with more frequency.
“We had some really good accomplishments in that class and we also had some good leadership behind the scenes,” Owen said. “I felt for them, because they were really looking forward to setting some history.”
The NCAA has already granted Division II spring athletes an extra season of eligibility. Owen isn’t sure how many seniors will take advantage of it, if any: three have post-graduation plans already while two remain in limbo.
But if any do end up returning, they’ll come back to a team that knows it can compete — and didn’t need a full season to prove it to itself. As Owen said: “that’s neither here nor there.”
Now that the Golden Eagles have had the chance to adjust to their new reality, what matters is what lies ahead — making sure everyone is doing okay, and then moving on for good.
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