Stony Brook baseball looked a little different this spring. The team usually starts the season with a few road trips to play against southern teams like Clemson and Texas State, and originally planned to open against Michigan at the Mets’ spring training complex in Florida.
The pandemic had other plans.
Instead, Stony Brook started its season at Joe Nathan Field against Sacred Heart University to mark the first February home game in program history and the first opening day at home since 1996.
In the season-opening doubleheader victory, the field itself looked flawless. The turf glistened as the sun shone above the naked trees behind the first base dugout.
The area around the field was a different story. Only a week after the Northeast’s latest snowstorm, Joe Nathan Field – named for the six-time Major League Baseball All-Star and Stony Brook alumnus – was surrounded by mounds of snow that rivaled the height of the bleachers they blocked. Players struggled to find foul balls that plopped into the snow as if they were looking for white needles in a white haystack.
Aside from the winter wonderland that outlined the field, something else was very different from past baseball seasons.
As players jogged out onto the field, they pulled down the red gaiter face coverings decorated with Stony Brook’s patented Seawolf logo. The rest of the players and coaches kept their faces covered with the school-issued version of personal protective equipment, as the dugout’s tight quarters didn’t allow for much social distancing.
A red ribbon tied from a garbage can to one of the bleacher legs – about 20 feet from the dugout – marked the area that spectators weren’t allowed to cross. Though there weren’t many Stony Brook fans in attendance, about 40 relatives of Sacred Heart players came to support their Pioneers. Everyone in attendance was bundled up in winter jackets and hats, blankets, and of course, everyone’s face was covered by some sort of mask.
On March 12, 2020, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) announced that all collegiate sports were canceled until the end of the spring semester due to COVID-19.
One year after the announcement, Stony Brook Athletic Director, Shawn Heilbron, reflected on the department’s position as it headed into the 2020 season. “We had an amazing trajectory. I really felt like in our spring, we were going to win a ton of championships,” Heilbron said.
Since Heilbron arrived in 2014, Stony Brook has achieved historic success, highlighted by the school’s first America East Commissioner’s Cup – awarded annually to the strongest athletic program in the conference – just five years later in the 2018-19 season. “We were in a great place last spring, probably the best that we’ve ever been.”
The announcement came one week before the annual NCAA men’s basketball tournament and two weeks before the women’s tournament were scheduled to start. While the men’s team didn’t qualify for the tournament, the women were one game away from competing for the first time in the program’s 51-year history.
“At the time, our women’s basketball team was getting ready to host their first ever America East championship game,” Heilbron said. “Things went from we have to have limited fans to no fans to it’s shut down.”
While the athletic department made constant adjustments, players had to come to terms with the season’s abrupt end. The baseball team was fresh off winning the 2019 America East championship and looking to defend its title.
“We had been so ready to compete, to go back-to-back,” senior pitcher Brian Herrmann recalled as he sat in his car after a practice. “We were all just disappointed that we didn’t get that opportunity.”
Herrmann was especially disappointed because he hadn’t pitched since he suffered a season-ending elbow injury on April 13, 2019. The injury required Tommy John surgery – named after the first athlete to undergo the procedure that repairs a torn ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) – which typically takes about a year of recovery. The 22-year-old multidisciplinary studies major was expected to return in mid-to-late April of the 2020 season, but the shutdown forced him to wait much longer.
Meanwhile, the softball team was looking to avenge its 2019 loss in the America East championship and was about to take a 10-4 record into a tournament in Seattle. But it was canceled before the players departed for Washington. Next up were the scheduled games in Delaware the following week – canceled before the NCAA announced that the remainder of the spring season was also canceled.
Outfielder Shauna Nuss, who is from Westampton, N. J., knew she’d be able to get home easily. But she was concerned about her teammates who live on the West Coast because they weren’t sure if they’d be able to fly amid the panic.
It was only Nuss’s freshman season, so the 20-year-old knew her team would have more opportunities to make a run at an America East championship and play in the NCAA softball tournament, which she’d dreamed about for a long time. But she wasn’t so certain about some of her older teammates.
“At the time, we didn’t know if our seniors were going to be able to come back and play for us,” she said. “Out of anyone in the locker room, they were crying the most because they thought they had their senior season stripped away. To see them heartbroken because they didn’t think they were going to come back was hard to watch.”
A few weeks later, the NCAA Division I Council voted to approve an extra year of eligibility for all spring sport student-athletes whose seasons were canceled because of the pandemic. This reprieve was a major relief to all spring athletes, especially seniors, and helped bring a sense of clarity to a confusing and unprecedented situation.
Work Out From Home
As the pandemic became more serious, it was clear that athletes wouldn’t be returning to campus before the end of the semester, so the athletic department shifted the focus to keeping them engaged virtually.
“While we were at home, we were just trying to set up Zoom meetings and we tried to do virtual workouts, which eventually got shut down,” Nuss said over Zoom from her small dorm room. “Trying to stay connected was our focus.”
Nuss said her coaches checked in with her and her teammates regularly to make sure they were staying in shape and keeping up with their schoolwork. With gyms across the country closed or operating at limited capacity, finding ways to work out was challenging, but the athletes had to make do.
Coaches and trainers sent their players multiple versions of every workout to accommodate everyone’s access to equipment. Assistant Director of Athletic Performance Kate Newell and her staff sent surveys to find out what equipment athletes had. “Some people have bands, some people have full gyms in their houses, some people have one dumbbell. So, it was a wide range of what everyone had,” she said. They sent instructions on how to do each workout with no equipment, with limited equipment, and with full equipment.
“One way that our department stuck out was we were able to individualize things for kids and do things on a one-off basis,” Newell said, adding that athletes texted her throughout the summer asking for new workout programs when they got new equipment or gained access to gyms. Getting feedback and encouraging creativity was key to keeping athletes active at home.
“With gyms being closed, it was really hard to find a barbell and heavy weights. It was kind of about maintaining what you had, rather than gaining,” Nuss said. “It was really up to us to be responsible and to take care of those workouts just so we could keep the same championship mindset in our heads.”
While baseball coaches checked in with players, Herrmann and other seniors messaged younger players to make sure they were being responsible.
Herrmann’s disappointment came with a personal silver lining – the shutdown actually helped his recovery. If he had returned to the mound in April, as planned, he would have been limited to 50 to 70 pitches for his first few outings so he could build up to the more typical 90 to 100 pitches per game. The extra time allowed him to rebuild his arm strength, relearn his throwing mechanics and regain a feel for his changeup and curveball grips.
Between early April and late June 2020, the rate of positive COVID cases in New York State plummeted from a 14-day rolling average high of 45.6 percent to 1.0 percent. Confidence was growing that schools could reopen and fall sports would resume.
“I didn’t think we would be completely open for business, the way it had been, but I thought we would play,” Heilbron said. “I really didn’t think that we would be in a situation where we were – as we got into July – talking about canceling.”
Early last summer, athletes shared Heilbron’s confidence that Stony Brook sports would return in the fall. Senior volleyball player Kiani Kerstetter returned to Stony Brook from her home in Cardiff, Calif., in early July to start training for the team’s August preseason.
But Heilbron gradually became concerned as positive cases continued to pile up across the country and other schools questioned the return of sports.
On July 17, the America East Conference and the Colonial Athletic Association, in which Stony Brook’s football team plays, announced that fall sports would be postponed to the spring semester.
“I was surprised that the season was canceled,” Kerstetter said. “If I knew it was going to be canceled, I probably would’ve stayed in California a little bit longer.”
After these announcements, the athletic department’s focus shifted once again. This time, the goal was getting athletes back on campus and training in the fall to create a sense of normalcy. Following NCAA and America East guidelines, teams held limited practices in the fall semester and gradually worked up to full-team activities.
COVID protocols allowed only 20 people in the weight room at a time, meaning larger teams like football, lacrosse and baseball had to train in multiple groups. “My fall was much crazier than it normally would be,” Newell said. She recalled her head spinning after training three groups of lacrosse players in a two-and-a-half-hour period, but she was happy to have the athletes back in the weight room.
Heilbron noted that all Stony Brook students faced a lack of social activities on campus because of the pandemic, but having athletes back with their teams restored their sense of community.
Thinking back to the fall 2020 semester, Nuss smiled as she relived the softball team’s socially distanced pizza parties and pumpkin-carving day. The team practiced less in the fall than they typically would – eight hours a week instead of 20 hours – but these team-bonding activities allowed the players to socialize.
The baseball team didn’t have these kinds of activities, so Herrmann hosted a few socially distanced events at his parents’ Northport home to keep the team together and meet some of the newer players.
But Kerstetter only saw her teammates in the fall while working out or at practices. The only senior on the team, Kerstetter found it difficult to be a leader for her younger teammates. “I couldn’t see the freshmen outside of the gym, so it was just hard getting to know them more because I wasn’t able to be around them that often.”
Like all students, Stony Brook athletes had to move to online learning. “I definitely miss just being on campus and seeing people,” Kerstetter said. “Not having in-person classes was weird for my last semester, just that I didn’t get to be in a classroom and know my classmates.”
Returning to Stony Brook gave athletes a sense of familiarity, but they missed the social aspect of campus life, which continued during the spring season.
Each sport had different safety protocols that were determined by a combination of NCAA, America East and Stony Brook University campus guidelines. For example, volleyball players were required to wear masks during spring-season matches, which meant they only had to get tested for COVID-19 once a week under NCAA guidelines. But those guidelines were superseded by Stony Brook’s more stringent rule that all athletes get tested at least twice a week.
Fans weren’t allowed to attend indoor sports, meaning the volleyball team played in empty gyms the entire season. “The crowd is definitely my favorite part. I love playing in front of people,” Kerstetter said. “It wasn’t what I expected my senior night or my entire senior season to be like.”
Athletes weren’t allowed to meet off the field or use the locker room. Softball players would usually help each other apply makeup and style their hair in the locker room before each game, but now they were expected to get ready in their dorm rooms and show up to the field ready to play.
Herrmann said the locker room was the most common place to hang out with his teammates and get to know each other. Usually, he would be in the locker room before and after classes, workouts, practices and games.
Practices mostly remained the same, the athletes just had to be diligent about social distancing and wearing masks. Nuss described softball practices as “very businesslike,” which had seniors worried about how they were viewed by freshmen because they couldn’t see each other off the field.
“I think we’re missing some part of team bonding,” Nuss said at the time. “Not that we don’t have as much fun as we can, because winning is fun, but we don’t have fun outside of softball that we might have in a normal season.”
Traveling for road games changed dramatically. Nuss recalled her team being “stuffed in a van together” when they traveled to New Jersey to play Farleigh Dickinson University at the start of the 2020 season. During the spring season when the team traveled, they took a coach bus with one player occupying each row. Masks, of course, were mandatory.
While on the road, athletes had to carry take-out food back to their hotel rooms to avoid potential exposure to the coronavirus. “We can’t leave the hotel rooms anymore, which is a bummer because I always love going in the hot tub after a long game to decompress,” Herrmann said.
The baseball players would usually get together in a hotel room to watch pro games in their down time, but COVID-19 prevented that, too.
Grateful to be Playing Again
Despite all the changes, athletes were happy to be playing again. Seniors like Kerstetter – who returned to California with a degree in health sciences to intern at WAVE Agility and Strength, where she will share her experience in volleyball and training with young athletes – and Herrmann, who will be starting his career as an electrical engineer, weren’t even sure they’d have a chance to finish their collegiate careers, so they were thankful for the spring season.
On Feb. 28, 2021, Herrmann pitched in his first game since injuring his elbow 687 days earlier. The Seawolves ultimately lost the game, but Herrmann was thrilled to be back on the mound. “I was filled with emotions when I came out of that game,” he said. “It was probably the best feeling ever.”
Kerstetter’s parents usually made the trip from California to watch her play as often as they could, but the pandemic prevented them from traveling. While Kerstetter couldn’t play in front of a crowd on her senior night – a ceremony for graduating seniors before the last home game of the season – her parents surprised her by showing up to celebrate her career.
As her parents watched, Kerstetter’s coaches presented her with a plaque before her last game, against the University of New Hampshire.
And although he wasn’t playing any sports, Heilbron was happy to see a year’s worth of adjustments culminate in bringing athletics back to Stony Brook. It was challenging in the beginning to figure out the practice schedules of 11 teams as well as adjust to the changing schedules of opponents. But the department collaborated to make sure the athletes could play.
“It’s been really rewarding to see our athletes compete, to see them happy,” Heilbron said at the time. “The student-athletes, they just want to play. They want to get out there and do what they love to do with the people they love.”
With the joy of playing came the competitive spirit of sports as the Seawolves retrained their focus on winning championships.
Under normal circumstances, the volleyball team would have made the America East playoffs with the fourth-best record in the conference, but the top two teams at the end of this unique season played in a championship match. Their season came to a disappointing end, but they weren’t expected to be a powerhouse this year.
Six seniors departed after the 2019 season and five freshmen entered the lineup in an unprecedented year. The volleyball team’s inexperience showed early in the season, as it lost its first five matches. As the season progressed, Stony Brook won seven of its last ten matches and finished with a 7-8 record, better than the 9-17 season in 2019.
Kerstetter was part of Stony Brook’s championship lineup in 2017 and 2018, and while her team fell short this season, she’s confident that her teammates have a bright future.
Despite all the changes this season, the softball team stayed focused to get back to where its season ended in 2019 – the America East championship game. “You have to keep in mind the end of the year goal. That ring, that championship,” Nuss said.
One game away from securing home field advantage in the playoffs, the softball team finished the regular season in second place in the conference. The softball team worked its way through the first two rounds of the America East tournament but ultimately lost in the championship round to first-place University of Maryland, Baltimore County – the same team that beat Stony Brook in the championship in 2019.
Meanwhile, the baseball team finished the regular season in first place, thanks in large part to a 10-0 start in conference play, the team’s best start since it joined the America East in 2002. Stony Brook hosted the America East tournament at the end of May, but the baseball team’s effort to defend its 2019 title controversially fell short due to inclement weather.
After losing the first game of the double-elimination tournament, Stony Brook bounced back with two straight wins to get to the championship round. Needing two wins against New Jersey Institute of Technology to reclaim the America East title, Stony Brook took an early 1-0 lead on a rainy Saturday afternoon.
The rain intensified in the third inning and three straight walks loaded the bases for the Seawolves. But before the team could extend its lead, the game entered a rain delay and was eventually suspended.
The two teams were scheduled to resume playing the next morning, but the rain continued and the America East announced at 12:42 p.m. that the remainder of the tournament was canceled. As the only unbeaten team in the tournament, NJIT received the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
For the second year in a row, the team had no control over how its season ended.
Despite the heartbreaking endings, Heilbron feels that the spring season can only help Stony Brook regain its momentum and propel it into the fall. “Even though all the results may not be what we want them to be, it really is about continuing to build and moving forward,” he said.
Heilbron understands that anything can happen now that the fall semester is in full swing with residence halls at near-full capacity and 80 percent of classes being conducted in person. “We’re looking forward to getting back and supporting all of our athletes at the highest level,” he said before classes resumed. “We’re going to plan to be up and running full steam ahead and that’s certainly the hope.”
Heilbron believes that much success awaits the Seawolves in the seasons ahead as they regain momentum and get back to where they were before a global pandemic hit.