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.
Charlie Katsiaficas is ordinarily comfortable finding the right words for his team after a season abruptly ends. In 33 years as a head coach, he’s had to do it 33 times.
But this time, Katsiaficas, who arrived at Division III Pomona-Pitzer as an assistant to then-Sagehens coach Gregg Popovich in 1984, was at a loss. Following his 512th victory, which earned him a trip to his first-ever Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament, everything came to a halt with a phone notification while he was sitting on a United jet about to turn onto the runway.
It came via an impersonal news alert announcing the NCAA tournaments at all levels were canceled due to the COVID-19 outbreak. That first Sweet 16 would elude him. The gut-punch was devastating. But as he and the team coped with the shock, they kept rolling toward one of the two runways at Ontario International Airport just about 9 miles from their campus in Claremont, California. In just a few minutes, he and his team would be airborne, headed 2,000 miles to Chicago in the middle of a pandemic for a game that was no longer happening.
He had to shake it off and think fast. Katsiaficas flagged down a flight attendant with a plea: Is there any chance they could turn around and let them off? The attendant hustled to ask the pilot, who remarkably agreed to take them back to the gate.
“If we’re at any other major airport, there’s no way we’re able to go back,” said James Kelbert, a senior forward.
It was an unlikely victory, an unforgettable last-second shot that paid off — just like the one two days before that earned them the seats on that flight.
That’s when Jack Boyle made school history. In Atlanta, facing Emory University on their home court, the senior caught an arching cross-court inbounds pass from Kelbert, faked one defender and launched a shot over another, drilling a 3-pointer for a 71-70 victory as time expired.
“I let it fly,” Boyle said. “It felt good, went in and I couldn’t believe it.”
Colorado basketball coach Tad Boyle, Jack’s dad, has his story to tell about the shot. He watched Pomona-Pitzer’s game on a return trip from Utah, where the Buffaloes had just suffered a brutal 74-72 overtime loss via free throws from a controversial foul call with no time remaining. Watching on his iPad, he landed with a minute and a half to go and had to get off the plane and scramble to find a place to catch the ending.
“It was as low as you can get as a basketball coach and as high as you can get as a parent, all in a four-or-five-hour period,” Tad Boyle said. “Here I am with my staff in the middle of Denver International Airport whoopin’ and hollerin’. It was a big-time shot, a big-time pass and a big-time play.”
Kelbert, who stood frozen watching from the sideline until Boyle released the ball, still doesn’t understand it.
“The more we looked at the shot [after the game], the less likely it is that it went in,” he said. “His heels were almost out of bounds. He shot it higher than he normally does.
“The physics of it don’t really make sense to me.”
But the excitement was short-lived, giving way to the what-ifs of a season lost. On that short return trip from the airport back to campus, it was clear how quickly everything was changing.
“Not many people can say the last shot of their career was a buzzer-beater to send your team to the deepest it’s ever gone in the NCAA tournament. You go out on the highest of highs with that shot.”
“Going back to school and seeing everybody that was wishing you well just a couple of hours before …” Jack Boyle said. “Now the mood’s completely different. That was a very strange morning.”
He said Kelbert, a pre-med major who’s an aspiring neurosurgeon, was following the coronavirus’ spread and brought perspective quickly, telling the team this was the right decision. Kelbert confesses he wasn’t sure they should’ve even been getting on the plane to begin with.
“The first things to go are the mass gatherings … even though D-III games don’t always qualify for those,” Kelbert said, laughing. “But I know how serious something like this is.”
Katsiaficas had to come to grips on his own terms, though.
“It was a confusing mix of anger, frustration and disappointment,” he said. “You don’t understand the whole impact of the thing nationwide yet. We got off the plane, and my head was spinning in all sorts of different directions. I didn’t know what to think about it or how to deal with all the emotions.”
The school had already announced that students would not return after spring break, so he knew this might be his final meeting with Boyle, Kelbert, Micah Elan, Matthew Paik and Adam Rees — all seniors who made up the winningest class in school history.
“You want to somehow kind of tie things up or help them understand the whole thing,” Katsiaficas said. “So we got together the next day, Friday, and did the best we could to sort of put a little bit of closure on the whole experience, which had been such a special one for us.”
With time, the cancellation fades as the defining moment. That last game — and that last shot — have come back into focus with all the perspective of time.
“If you had to deal with this type of scenario, our ride was halted at a pretty good moment,” Katsiaficas said. “This situation stopped us. We were still taking care of everyone they put in front of us.”
“It’s a weird feeling,” Kelbert said. “You haven’t won the championship but you haven’t lost.”
Tad Boyle said it was heartbreaking seeing the careers of two seniors on his Colorado team cut short along with his own son’s.
“It’s just kind of surreal,” he said. “It’s something you think you’d read about in some fiction book or a novel.”
Jack Boyle, though, chooses to focus on the storybook ending.
“There’s a strange beauty in it,” he said. “Not many people can say the last shot of their career was a buzzer-beater to send your team to the deepest it’s ever gone in the NCAA tournament. You go out on the highest of highs with that shot.
“Nobody was able to take us out.”