Sam Landstra — Staff Writer
Ebby Prewitt knew her tournament was over as soon as the commissioner stepped foot on the court. Southeastern and Ohio Christian had just finished their game and had gone into the locker rooms. Her team sat next to her on the bleachers dressed and ready to play.
With resignation in his voice, Commissioner Westra spoke and the Tyson Events Center fell quiet.
“The NAIA National Basketball Tournament has been cancelled.” He said.
Players looked around at each other. Stunned. Were they serious? Was it really over? Prewitt buried her face into her hands and started to cry. Her senior season had vanished in an instant, stolen by the COVID-19 epidemic.
A teammate approached her and placed a hand on her shoulder. Another cradled her head. Sienna Stamness, the junior guard who lost much of her own season from two ACL tears, wrapped both her arms around Prewitt.
This was supposed to be their year.
“It was almost unbelievable at first.” Prewitt said. “All of us players have a bond that won’t be broken because no one else understood what that was like.”
With two games already played on the Thursday morning, and eight others the previous day, a sudden abandonment of the tournament seemed out of the question. Any news of similar cancellations or postponements in the sports world felt distant before that moment, small ripples in an ocean far away.
“Never did I think that we would just cancel it.” Coach Bill Harmsen said. “The rug was kind of pulled out from under them.”
At 11:07 pm the night before, Harmsen received an email while in his hotel room mandating a restricted number of fans at the tournament. Each player would be given six tickets for immediate family members, amounting to 126 people per team.
“I won’t forget it.” Harmsen said.
Still, while dominoes fell in the NBA and NCAA, he believed the tournament would continue.
Earlier that evening, assistant coach Abby Schultz led the team in a devotional on showing gratitude in every moment. She told a story of a boy who suddenly passed away after collapsing on the court during a game, urging her players to recognize the gift of basketball, of living each day. We are not guaranteed anything, she said.
“It’s true.” Prewitt said. “I thought I was going to get up and play my game at nationals. But I didn’t.”
After the announcement, Prewitt and her teammates wandered onto the court to meet their families. Still shaken, tears flowed for lost opportunities and hugs shared in their grief. Every player shot a layup to close out their season.
Having emerged from the locker rooms in equal bewilderment, the Southeastern team milled around the arena as well. One person scrimmaged one-on-one against her brother.
“We’re both dressed. Do you guys want to play?” Prewitt asked a Southeastern player, only half-kidding.
She nodded back, jokingly.
But when a group of Defenders struck up a game of knockout, Southeastern joined in one by one until both teams were fully lined up in competition.
“It was really fun to see these women find joy in the game they loved to play since they were little kids, find joy in the situation.” Harmsen said.
Amid the hysteria and heartbreak of the COVID-19 epidemic, many seek out the silver lining, the sources of light and positivity. When the Dordt and Southeastern women came together in their brokenness and sorrow, they found theirs.
“I have never felt so connected to hundreds of other girls in other states from around the country.” Prewitt said.
After returning to the hotel, Prewitt texted her old AAU teammates who had their own seasons upended as well. Across the nation, student athletes became collateral damage taken in the name of necessary precaution. For seniors like Prewitt, many had played their last game without even knowing it.
“I hope that once all the pain goes away, I can realize my career was great.” Prewitt said. “I think we can call [the season] a success just because we set the standard for ourselves even higher than last year.”
During the 2019/2020 season, the Defenders etched their name into the record books with an all-time–high 24–win season. They also won their first GPAC conference tournament game and scored a repeat appearance at nationals.
All this in mind, Harmsen views his team’s commitment to each other as their truest achievement.
“Our seniors played for three different head coaches, stuck with the program, and absolutely were agents of change because they had to be.” Harmsen said.
After 88 practices, 32 games, and 6 months of dedication to the game, the Defender women learned how to serve each other and took home a stellar season in the process. Not even a global pandemic could take that away.