Mark Smartt and his Troy baseball team were eating at a restaurant in Columbus, Ga., on the way to the first Sun Belt Conference series of the year at Georgia Southern when they got the word to turn around.
“Quite honestly, when I shared the news that we were going to be heading back to Troy, I think they expected that,” Smartt said. “They’re seeing everything that I’m seeing.
“The SEC, the ACC (basketball tournaments) are canceled — they’re pulling people off the courts. News is moving quickly and a lot of things are starting to be shut down.”
Troy softball coach Beth Mullins was having her team over for dinner that same Thursday night just over a week ago when she broke the news that play had been suspended in the Sun Belt Conference for the foreseeable future due to COVID-19. The NCAA had also released a statement that no spring championships would take place.
“I gave them 30 minutes — because we were going to eat in 30 minutes — to walk around the neighborhood if they needed to cry,” Mullins said. “If they needed to scream, scream.
“We had to warn my neighbors that there may be some kids walking around upset. They processed it all very differently the way they should be allowed to.
“I don’t think at that point anyone had a real understanding of what this was. Now that there is a much better understanding of what we’re dealing with in the country and in the world, softball is so small now when you look back on it.”
Both coaches are experiencing a brand new ballgame in trying to make sense of what is transpiring across the globe. Their main priority right now has nothing to do with hitting a ball or stealing a base, but instead caring for the well-being of their players who have dispersed from campus and are now taking classes online.
“Needless to say, as a baseball coach at Troy University, I certainly didn’t have a good playbook on how to handle these things,” Smartt said. “I tried to lean on my experience as a coach and as an athlete to try to deal with these things.
“Quite honestly, what you teach athletes is instead of succumbing to the adversity, you embrace the adversity and move forward appropriately. That was just kind of the way I tried to present things. Here are the facts and we have to deal with this.
“It’s easy to sit back and lob complaints at everyone making these decisions. Let’s not question the people in place making these decisions. Let’s adapt and move forward and we’ll come out on the other side in a better form.”
After the initial news broke, Troy softball and baseball players began heading home — not knowing for sure if the rest of the season would be wiped out. By Monday afternoon, the Sun Belt Conference announced springs sports were halted for the rest of the year.
The Trojans’ softball team played their final game on Wednesday, March 11, against Samford in Birmingham, and won 1-0.
“That Samford game, when you look back on it, was the last game we would have played for the season and we didn’t have a clue when we got back on the bus,” Mullins said.
Mullins’ team will finish the season with a 17-6 record. No chance at a Sun Belt title; no chance at an NCAA Tournament appearance.
“I still don’t know if I’ve really processed it,” Mullins said. “Our main concern has been these girls. Coaches like projecting ahead a lot. I think we had already prepared as coaches two or three weeks ago that, ‘Hey, we might not make it until the end of the year. Let’s make sure we enjoy this.’
“I’m sure it’s going to hit me in a couple of weeks. Selfishly, you want to finish the season and we were on a really good road.”
Like all of the Troy coaches, Mullins and Smartt have continued to stay in close contact with their teams through phone and computer methods.
The concern is for the players’ needs academically and mentally.
“They have not been through anything like this before,” Mullins said. “Some of us who are older that have gone through 9/11 — I went through that in college and that was life-changing.
“Sports is very similar to life and sometimes you can do everything right and it just doesn’t work out for you, and this is just one of those situations.”
Smartt had a conference call with his team this past Tuesday. The Troy baseball team will end its season with a 9-8 record.
“What I chose to do was be as transparent with all the information that was put in place in front of me from the people above me to share that with the team,” Smartt said.
“I asked them (players) to exercise a level of patience here, which is difficult for all of us to display. Patience has become less and less of a virtue these days in the world we live in with instant everything.
“We have a lot questions that we’re staring at right now without a lot of answers. So instead of questioning all of these things, let’s stay current, let’s stay healthy, let’s follow the protocol in place for social distancing, etc.
“Let’s focus on school work. Baseball was put on the backburner. I understand that and fully support that. My job now has become more informational versus instruction.”