One year later: UMass athletes, coaches reflect on pandemic’s onset

  • Carl Pierre and the UMass men's basketball team warmed up on the Barclays Center floor last March before the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the rest of the 2020 Atlantic 10 Championships. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

  • Hampshire Regional grad Katelyn Pickunka returned to the basketball floor for Smith College last week for a one on one workout, the first team activity since last season’s NCAA Tournament was canceled. The Pioneers did not play this season. CIARA LAWRENCE/SMITH ATHLETICS

  • Hampshire Regional grad Katelyn Pickunka returned to the basketball floor for Smith College last week for a one on one workout, the first team activity since last season’s NCAA Tournament was canceled. The Pioneers did not play this season. CIARA LAWRENCE/SMITH ATHLETICS

Staff Writer
Published: 3/11/2021 2:30:16 PM
Modified: 3/11/2021 7:56:47 PM

Matt McCall didn’t even make it out of the Barclays Center tunnel at last year’s Atlantic 10 Championships.

UMass Director of Basketball Operations Brian Grossman had just told him the Big 12 and SEC had canceled their conference tournaments. Some UMass men’s basketball players had already lined up for the national anthem ahead of a noon tip against VCU.

It was March 12, 2020.

“I don’t know if the ball’s going to get thrown up,” McCall recalled.

COVID-19 updates, getting worse by the minute, were in the back of the team’s minds on the bus ride down to New York the day before the game. McCall took the Minutemen to the Barclays Center so they could see the arena before playing. They watched Fordham and George Washington tangle in an opening round game in a largely empty arena, a site that would become commonplace over the next year.

That night, McCall saw what happened at the Oklahoma City Thunder game, when Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19, subsequently canceling the event. He was paying particularly close attention since his mentor, former Florida coach Billy Donovan, was in charge of the Thunder.

“It was the rest of the night wondering, ‘Are we were going to play?’” McCall said. “Staying up all night checking Twitter and the internet to see if the game was even going to transpire.”

Back in the tunnel, minutes before tip, UMass assistant athletic director for communications and PR Matthew Houde’s phone rang. He quickly handed it to McCall. UMass athletic director Ryan Bamford  was on the line. He told McCall to get the players off the floor, the game wasn’t happening.

The Atlantic 10 canceled the rest of its tournament, as did every other college basketball conference. The rest of the team and staff returned to the hotel, but McCall had to stay for a press conference with dozens of media members.

When he stepped out of the arena in Brooklyn, he didn’t know if it was safe to take an Uber back to the hotel. McCall walked a mile in a suit and dress shoes instead.

“To think we’re a year removed from that is hard to believe,” McCall said. “It’s a day I’ll never forget.”

March 12 was a Thursday. Hockey East also canceled its tournament then, the day before the quarterfinals were scheduled to drop the puck. UMass was the No. 2 seed with designs on a return to the TD Garden.

“The one thing I love about my job is I get to come back every year as long as I don’t lose too many games. Players don’t get to come back. They have a finite time,” UMass coach Greg Carvel said. “Not having last year’s playoff, our players this year are very aware of being grateful that they have the opportunity to play for championships. Last year, that was snatched out from beneath them.”

It also halted the NCAA Division III basketball tournaments, ending the most successful season in Smith College basketball history and costing the Amherst College women’s team a shot at another national championship.

“It’s important to recognize the fact that we had such an amazing season,” said Katelyn Pickunka, a Hampshire Regional grad and Smith College junior. “I don’t think many of us really expected to achieve everything that we did.”

Over the past year, UMass has slowly returned to competition. The Minutemen initially canceled the fall football season with a mind toward moving it to the spring before eventually playing a four-game slate in October and November. Most Atlantic 10 fall sports were moved to the spring.

UMass returned to the basketball floor and hockey rink in the late fall. The athletes were among the only students on campus and kept to their living spaces, dining halls and practice facilities. They were tested for COVID twice a week.

Shortly before the men’s basketball team was supposed to return to the floor, a positive test paused team activities. The Minutemen didn’t take the floor until Dec. 11, their latest start since 1947. It was the first of three pauses UMass endured. The second occurred in late January and was out of an abundance of caution due to contact tracing. No member of the program returned a positive test.

UMass also didn’t test positive during its final pause, which came as a result of the school changing its operational posture to “high risk” due to a rise in COVID cases on campus.

“It’s been so choppy. there’s been no real flow like a regular season would have,” UMass sophomore center Tre Mitchell said. “At the end of the day it is what it is, you have to adapt to whatever situation you’re put into, and I think that’s something we’re doing well.”

The Minutemen returned to the A-10 Tournament last week, winning a game for the first time since 2018. They advanced to the quarterfinals before falling to Saint Louis.

“Take advantage of every moment you have,” Mitchell said. “You just have to stay present and take it one step at a time.”

The hockey program never had to pause due to its own positive tests, but UMass regularly endured gaps in its schedule because of other teams’ pauses or the schedule shifting to catch up. The Minutemen played the most games in the nation for most of the year.

“It’s something that’s definitely in the back of my mind getting playoffs taken away from us last year and the tournament, that’s a big deal,” UMass junior Bobby Trivigno said late in the regular season. “This time when we get a chance in Hockey East or the national tournament, we’re going to be ready.”

UMass opens the Hockey East postseason Sunday against Northeastern in the quarterfinal round at the Mullins Center.

But not every team received that full-circle moment. Neither Smith or Amherst returned to the floor in 2020 or 2021. Both the NESCAC and NEWMAC canceled their winter seasons, leaving teams to practice if they were even on campus.

Amherst’s athletes returned during the fall but only practiced. Smith didn’t bring its students back until the spring semester. For the first few weeks, the campus worked through its blue (most restrictive) and yellow (some restrictions) to reach green, where all facilities are open with COVID protocols. Some Pioneers took gap years, but the ones who came back to campus underwent individual workouts with coaches, the first team activity since practicing for the Sweet 16 last year.

“It creates some sort of normalcy with being back on campus,” Pickunka said. “The first few weeks were interesting having that academic sense, but it didn’t feel like we were student athletes.”

Kyle Grabowski can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @kylegrbwsk.

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