Jake Bertemes answered the phone Sunday, three days after the end of his college basketball career at Wittenberg, and was asked how he was doing.
“Hanging in there,” he said.
That goes for many people these days. It could be a long spring for those used to devoting so much of their time to sports. Everything has been cancelled in response to the potential spread of the coronavirus. Bertemes was still on campus, but with everything closed, it was a strange time.
“Without any sports, it’s so weird,” Bertemes said.
Weird would be the word to describe the ending of Wittenberg’s season. Almost every season ends in some sort of disappointment. Only one team cuts down the nets after the national championship game, of course, and the Tigers haven’t done that since 1977.
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However, no ending can compare to what happened Thursday, one day before Wittenberg was scheduled to play at Mount Union in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Division III tournament.
“That was the worst part,” said Bertemes, a Southeastern High School graduate. “We were literally in our practice gear, going through a full practice.”
Bertemes saw Mount Union Athletic Director Larry Kehres enter the gym and start talking to Wittenberg coach Matt Croci. The conversation continued for about 10 minutes.
“We just keep going,” Bertemes said. “Next thing you know we do a drill we would not normally do before a game. We were kind of just beating the hell out of each other, and the after that, (Croci) told us, and it hits us that our season is over.”
The Division III tournament was cancelled Thursday just like the Division I tournament and every other winter sports championship. The dominoes fell one after the other. Two days earlier, Wittenberg players had learned they would play in front of only family members on Friday. They didn’t even get to do that.
“Part of me is like at least I got into the tournament,” he said. “All those guys fighting for a chance to play (in the Division I tournament) didn’t even get a chance to do that. It’s unfortunate, but I’m grateful at least we got to play. I can say I did get past the second round, which is nice.”
Bertemes expected the cancellation after the NBA suspended its season Wednesday night but said, “I really wasn’t ready for it.”
The news was even worse for students in spring sports. Wittenberg and the North Coast Athletic Conference cancelled the entire spring season. The NCAA will give those athletes an extra year of eligibility.
“One of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever had to make,” Wittenberg Athletic Director Gary Williams wrote on Twitter. “My heart goes out to all of our spring sport seniors and their families as well as our winter sport teams and individuals who were not able to complete their NCAA Championship competitions. Such difficult times for all.”
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Wittenberg finished the season 28-2. It reached the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2012 when it advanced to the Elite Eight. Even after learning about the cancellation, the players continued to play.
“You get 90 minutes to practice,” Bertemes said. “We had like 50 left, so we just played seniors and freshmen versus juniors and sophomores in a pickup game for one last time. That’s kind of how it went down for us.”
The season had one more moment to remember. Mount Union coach Mike Fuline asked Croci if they wanted to cut down the net with Mount Union, so each team took a turn.
“At first, I was like, I don’t know, it sounds like of weird,’” Bertemes said, “but it was nice to do that and see the other guys going through the same thing. It was nice that both teams got to share that moment.”
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