OREM — Utah Valley softball was supposed to open up its conference schedule Friday afternoon. Instead, players and coaches are scattered across the Western United States, holed up in their homes in the wake of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
The team was off to a hot start under first-year head coach Stacy May-Johnson; but now, with the season canceled, more questions than answers remain.
On Thursday, March 11, as the NBA season was suspended and sports leagues around the country began to shutter their windows, the coach had a feeling that sooner rather than later, her team’s season would prematurely draw to a close as well.
The next day, as she released her team for spring break, there was uncertainty whether she would see them again that year.
"I didn’t sugarcoat anything with the team," May-Johnson said during a phone call from her home in Orem. "I think more than anything we just had sympathy for the seniors."
One of those seniors, pitcher Devyn Cretz felt an eerie sense during the team’s Thursday practice that would prove to be their last, that it was the end of her playing days.
"It was a very surreal feeling, realizing things were getting real and this could be the last of it. Our team was doing so well, I didn’t want it to end. I didn’t want the feeling to end," Cretz said, calling from Southern California.
"For some reason, I looked at Stacy at the end of practice then walked away and just started crying. I don’t know, so much emotion had come over me. I felt like I didn’t get enough time with Stacy and things were getting taken from me when I had no control over the situation."
When the WAC season was officially canceled and UVU told its teams to quit practicing, May-Johnson suddenly had more time than she knew what to do with. She had taken the UVU job at the outset of 2020, leaving her post as an assistant at Eastern Kentucky just over a month before opening day. The frenzied period left her with little time to get her affairs in order as she took control of the softball program and established roots in a new state.
Her husband remains across the country finishing work on a renovation project of famed Kentucky Derby racetrack Churchill Downs.
May-Johnson’s two young girls had been staying in Minnesota with their grandparents while she settled in her new home. Luckily, the kids had come to Utah to visit last week and when the season was up in the air, she was able to keep them with her before travel was further restricted.
The early end to the season complicates several aspects of the future of NCAA spring sports, but it might actually benefit May-Johnson as she prepares to deliver a baby boy in June, her third child.
May-Johnson hasn’t been with UVU long, but she has already fused a strong bond with her new players, thanks in part to her humble coaching approach that coincides with a remarkable resume that commands respect.
She boasts far-reaching accolades from her playing career, starting as a standout infielder for the Iowa Hawkeyes in college, before having one of the most prodigious professional softball careers in the history of the National Pro Fastpitch league.
May-Johnson’s number was retired by the Chicago Bandits following highly decorated years from 2006-11 in which she was a three-time All-Star, two-time league MVP and two-time champion. Her greatest honor came, however, as a member of the United States National Team, winning a gold medal twice and collecting the 2011 USA Softball Player of the Year award.
So, barring logistical issues involving scholarship money and available academic courses, all four current Wolverine seniors decided they wanted to return next year when the NCAA agreed to grant an additional year of eligibility for spring sport athletes whose seasons were cut short.
"We all love Stacy," Cretz said. "I was talking to her a week before we found out our season was canceled and I told her that I felt like she had been my coach (my whole career)."
Cretz still has a lot to determine about her future — whether she can enroll in UVU’s MBA program at this stage of the year or if her scholarship will be held as the incoming freshman class claims spots on the roster — but she knows she wants nothing more than to finish her senior year the right way.
It’s no wonder she would want to return for another season after posting a 2.45 ERA in 48.2 innings pitched about a third of the way through the season.
"I knew it was going to end eventually, in May or June, but I just didn’t think it was going to end in March when we hadn’t even had a home game yet," Cretz said.
For now, May-Johnson is waiting on specific NCAA legislation to help guide programs through the process of keeping seniors for another season. She anticipates that this move could have a five-year fallout on teams as they juggle five classes on one roster.
Despite the shock and disappointment of the lost season and potentially losing a couple seniors for next year, she thought 2020 was a success.
"I think it was a great season. I don’t know what I expected, or what anybody else expected, but what we did certainly exceeded whatever expectations I had. It was a really exciting year."