MT. PLEASANT — Mapleleaf Athletic Complex isn’t getting the attention it deserves in late May. Normally, the Iowa Wesleyan baseball and softball teams would be at the front end of their conference schedule, and the track would be getting ready for the first high school meet.
Instead, due to the Coronavirus outbreak, and the response to the crisis, Mt. Pleasant’s athletic complex is empty. No concession stands, announcers, fans, or local athletes in uniform.
The recent cancellation of the NCAA spring sports season hit the hardest for teams who had the highest expectations. One of those squads is the Iowa Wesleyan softball team, one of the most dangerous teams in the St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.
The Tigers were coming off a 13-5 conference record last year, tied for second in the league. They were picked fourth in the preseason poll, making them a favorite to get back to the conference tournament, which takes the top four, and they returned a boatload of talent, including reigning pitcher of the year, Morgan Christner.
Christner, a senior, was tearing it up in the pitcher’s circle during the Tigers’ spring break trip to South Carolina. She says she started to worry just two days before the season was postponed.
“I wasn’t really thinking about how COVID-19 would effect our season until Wednesday evening (March 11),” Christner says. “Most of the teams that were suspended seemed to be from the east coast, so in my head, I wasn’t too worried. I became most fearful when I heard that the Big Ten had canceled the rest of their season, and I figured that if a large conference like that would cancel, it was a possibility that ours would as well.”
The rest of the week would see the postponement and eventual cancellation of just about every sport at every level in America, and the announcement that the NCAA Division 3 spring sports season was over meant the Tigers would end their promising season just 10 games in.
“On our last day of playing, Friday, Coach (Mike Hampton) sat us all down and talked to us about what could happen,” says sophomore catcher Taylor Johnson, a rising star on the team. “He said he was about 50/50 on us having a season the day before, and on Friday he said he was less confident than that.”
The team went 5-5 in South Carolina, a perfect tune up for what would have been an intense conference slate. The top five teams in the SLIAC all finished within one game of each other in 2019, and the new year was set up for the same teams to fight it out for a top four spot.
Not only did the Tigers return both starting pitchers, Christner and sophomore Emma McDanel, but they also returned a good chunk of their lineup, and added a talented freshman group. One of those freshman, Ashley Pfadenhauer, was one of the new faces in the starting lineup this year. The Danville graduate says she’s happy the team was able to have a little time together, even if it was only a few games.
“Honestly, I am just grateful that we got to play,” Pfadenhauer says. “Yes, it may have only been 10 games, our time was cut short, and memories were taken from us, but at least we got the chance. We just need to focus on what good can come out of this now and remember everything happens for a reason.”
For some Tiger seniors, it was the last time they’d be able to suit up in IW purple. Luckily, however, the NCAA has granted extra flexibility for spring sports athletes, and approved a blanket waiver for all spring student athletes, allowing an extra year of eligibility. That means the 2020 seniors have the option to come back next year, a choice a few players plan on taking advantage of.
Outfielder Kayla Ford played a big roll in IW’s 2019 run, going 3-for-3 in the final regular season game to help the Tigers clinch a SLIAC tournament bid last year. She says the opportunities for the 2020 squad were “endless” and that she’d love one last crack at it when the spring rolls back around.
“I would love to come back and play,” Ford says. “Softball has been a part of my life for the past 18 years. This year was a wake-up call. Cherish every moment you are given the opportunity to do something you love.”
Christner, who threw a no-hitter in her final start of the season, says she is hopeful for a return, and if she does, the Tigers would likely be one of the favorites again in 2021.
“I’m not 100 percent sure about my plans for next year, but I am hopeful to have another year of eligibility and to get the chance to play again,” Christner says. “I will be student teaching that semester, so we will have to see if everything works out, but I am hopeful that I will get to play another game for Coach Hampton and (Ben) Fry.”
Ford and Christner are two of three seniors on the IW roster. The third, infielder Allison Daum, is also a key part of the team’s starting lineup, usually hitting in the middle of the order. Any of the three would be a big loss for IW softball, but the emerging SLIAC power still shows promise going into next spring.
Until then, fans of IW athletics will have to sit and wait until the next Tiger team takes the field, whenever that may be.