Katelyn Pickunka, Kate Sullivan reflect on Sweet 16 seasons cut short due to COVID-19

  • Katelyn Pickunka, center, of Smith College, shoots between Franklin & Marshall defenders Kenna Williams, left, and Emily Moran, Monday, Dec. 30, 2019, during the Smith Holiday Tournament at Smith College. Pickunka, now a sophomore, played for Hampshire Regional High School. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Kate Sullivan of Amherst College, left, moves the ball against Emily Velozo of Framingham State, during the first round of the NCAA Division 3 tournament, Friday, Mar. 6, 2020 at LeFrak Gym in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Kate Sullivan of Amherst College, center, splits Framingham State defenders Katty Haidul, left, and Flannery O'Connor during the first round of the NCAA Division 3 tournament, Friday, Mar. 6, 2020 at LeFrak Gym in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Lauren Pelosi of Amherst College, left, moves the ball past Framingham State defenders Sarah Sullivan, left, and Mary Kate O'Day, during the first round of the NCAA Division 3 tournament, Friday, Mar. 6, 2020 at LeFrak Gym in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 3/25/2020 1:34:17 PM

Amherst College women’s basketball coach G.P. Gromacki addressed his team in the locker room after their season ended. Unlike any of his previous 12 years, it didn’t follow a postseason loss or national championship victory.

The NCAA canceled all spring and winter championships March 12 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That was before the Division I and II basketball tournaments began, but the Division III tournaments had already reached the Sweet 16.

A news report about the cancellations had circulated in the team’s group chat before the meeting. They wondered if it affected them. Gromacki confirmed they wouldn’t play George Fox the next day, Friday, and their season was over.

“You could tell everyone was hurt, especially our seniors. Our senior All-Americans were petty devastated. It sucked to find out we weren’t going to keep playing after all that emotional physical effort, all the demanding aspects of that sport,” said Amherst junior Kate Sullivan, a Granby High School graduate. “We didn’t even get a chance to complete our season. It’s pretty devastating.”

Amherst’s three seniors – Madeline Eck, Hannah Fox and Cam Hendricks – took it the hardest. They’d won two national championships in their careers and had a chance to end them with a third. The Mammoths were ranked in the D3hoops.com top 10. They breezed through the NCAA tournament’s first two rounds, winning both games by at least 20 points.

Hendricks and Fox cried, struggling to force words out when they addressed the team. Eck, an All-American, responded more stoically but was still upset.

“That what hardest part for me was seeing how upset they were and knowing there was nothing anyone else could do to make them feel better,” Sullivan said.

While the Mammoths found out at home, Smith College’s team was alerted in the middle of a practice at Tufts. The Pioneers, who reached the Sweet 16 for the first time, left for Medford at 11:30 a.m. on March 12. They started practice at 3:30 p.m. in Cousens Gymnasium. Around 45 minutes later, Smith sports information director Ciara Lawrence and athletic director Kristin Hughes received an email that the tournament was canceled. Tournament director Jacey Brooks, the site representative and Cortland head coach, made some calls to confirm the news. Hughes whispered it to Smith coach Lynn Hersey. She allowed her team to finish the drill and appreciated that moment. Then Hersey called them together and passed the information along.

“It’s not the news you want to hear,” said Smith sophomore Katelyn Pickunka, a Hampshire Regional graduate. “It’s the furthest in the NCAA tournament Smith has ever gone and obviously we wanted to further that.”

The Pioneers took a team picture with the NCAA Tournament banner before hugging each other and returning to their hotel to pack up. After a team dinner at Venetian Moon in Reading, they loaded back onto the bus back to Northampton, arriving on campus a little after 11 p.m.

“My heart goes out to the seniors, particularly spring sports athletes who had a whole season wiped away from them. Losing our season was hard,” Pickunka said. “But I’m so happy we had such an amazing season. There were a lot of positives that came out of this season even if the ending was a little sad and very abrupt.”

Though the news was sudden for both teams, it didn’t completely surprise. Both Amherst and Smith announced the cancellation of in-person classes, a move to remote learning and the closure of on-campus housing on March 10. Amherst hosted its first- and second-round NCAA Tournament games without fans, and the remaining sites were going to follow suit had they played the later rounds.

“With Smith canceling paired with the NBA canceling a lot of people had a gut feeling about it that potentially our season could be ended at any point in time,” Pickunka said. “We were on a great run. Not even getting the chance to compete was a difficult pill to swallow.”

The not knowing also stung the Mammoths. They felt like they were rounding into form after – by their standards – an up-and-down season. Amherst bowed out of the NESCAC Tournament in the semifinals for the second straight year but had refocused for a run at a national championship. The Mammoths were the only team with players that had won a national championship. St. Thomas More won last season’s title but moved to the NAIA before this season, and Amherst captured the previous two titles.

“We came together at the end and we were ready for anybody in the NCAA Tournament. In my opinion we could have won the whole thing,” Sullivan said. “It’s hard to not know how it could have ended.”

But it is over. Amherst will need to recover after losing a decorated senior class, but the Mammoths have won at least 25 games every year over the past decade. Their program has institutional staying power.

Smith, meanwhile, is showing what it could become. The Pioneers opened the year with a school-record winning streak and won their first NEWMAC Tournament championship. And they don’t have to replace anyone. Smith doesn’t have any seniors on the roster and can continue to build.

“We definitely have a little bit of an edge that we didn’t get to finish what we started,” Hersey said.

For now they’ll have to be apart for a while. Pickunka returned home to Westhampton. She’s close with her family and chose Smith in part so she could be close to home.

“I’m very fortunate for the situation I have, living close, being very close with my family,” she said.

Sullivan returned to Granby, as well. She has enjoyed being so close to her family and walking their dogs – 1-year-old black lab Finnleigh and 6-year-old yellow lab Sammy – every day.

“I miss basketball. I miss having a second home at the gym and being able to just go and clear my mind. The stress of how school is gonna go for the rest of the semester is daunting,” Sullivan said. “Considering the situation, I’m doing fine. As heartbroken as I am over this situation, I’m pretty lucky that I’m healthy, my family is healthy and I get to spend time with the people that I care about the most.”

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