The Idaho State track and field teams had a chance to continue their momentum this spring after the men finished second and the women third at the Big Sky Conference indoor championships in late February.
Of course, shortly after that, sports around the country were canceled because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, leaving the Bengals unable to build on that performance in the outdoor season.
The NCAA indoor national championships in New Mexico were canceled on March 12, one day before they were scheduled to open, leaving ISU star Treyshon Malone unable to compete in the long jump event at that meet.
For Bengals’ head coach Hillary Merkley, who was with Malone at the national meet, that was the warning sign that the spring outdoor track season was probably not happening — and kicked off a frantic few days, as Merkley and her assistants tried to get athletes home and find living arrangements for those staying in Pocatello.
“It was a pretty chaotic and stressful weekend, and we didn’t get to say goodbye to a lot of them, didn’t plan on not seeing them the rest of the year, so it was kind of challenging,” Merkley said. “I think our No. 1 priority was just safety for the students, and getting them in the best place they could be to be safe.”
Merkley said that about three-quarters of her athletes were able to make it back home, with some international students scrambling to find flights before borders closed. Those who didn’t make it home are still in Pocatello.
In a normal year, the Bengals would be preparing for the Big Sky outdoor championships, which were scheduled to start a week from Wednesday at Weber State.
The missed opportunity is especially cruel for the ISU teams, which surprised a lot of observers with their success at the indoor championships.
“We came off a really good indoor season,” Merkley said. “We had some kids that were already transitioning and setting goals for outdoors, some that maybe didn’t do as well as they would have liked (indoors). But I think that all of our team in general has just put in a great amount of work to be where we’re at. They’ve come a long ways in a short amount of time. It was heartbreaking to see that they could not have the outlet to perform and show what they were capable of doing.”
Depending on where they are, some athletes are still able to get outside and work out. Some are in parts of the country with stricter lockdowns, which makes it harder, or borderline impossible.
Merkley and her staff haven’t pushed workouts, asking the athletes to focus on safety and academics first.
“I have some kids who have messaged me and said, hey, I’m able to get out to a track and do some hurdles, and that’s great for those kids, where other kids are, yeah, I literally can’t leave my house,” Merkley said. “We mostly encouraged workouts for connection to something that they like doing and just general sanity, because I think mentally this has been, obviously, challenging for a lot of people. ... But it just looks so different for every single kid and every different situation, it’s really hard to mandate anything.”
Recruiting has also been altered, and nobody knows what the changed landscape will look like. High school seniors didn’t get to complete their final prep season, which many were counting on to hit marks that would get them onto the radar of college programs.
Those late bloomers may now be forced to walk on next year, or even try out for the team with no guarantee of a spot.
Merkley said that ISU might also look at senior transfers from other programs. The NCAA will allow spring sports seniors to retain an additional year of eligibility, but some schools can’t cover the scholarship for the extra year, leading athletes to transfer.
Add that to other coronavirus-related complications — prospective recruits can’t tour the school or meet the coaches, and many high school students haven’t had a chance to take required standardized tests — and it’s a bit of a wild West situation.
“I don’t know that we’re doing things perfectly, but we’re doing the best we can,” Merkley said.
As far as Idaho State’s own roster, the Bengals, with seven seniors for outdoor on the men’s side and two on the women’s, didn’t have many decisions to make concerning which seniors would return.
For the men, Malone and triple jumper Seth Jarus are both planning to use their NCAA-granted extra year.
Dual-sport star Tanner Conner could also be back on the track in the spring, but he’s also planning to pursue professional football after his senior year on the gridiron in the fall.
”He has some big goals for going on to the next level in football also, so I don’t know that we’ll see him return to track,” Merkley said. “We’ll see what happens. I hope he does achieve his goals football-wise and we don’t see him at the track, for his sake, but if that doesn’t work out, we’ll see him again, hopefully outdoors.”
Both senior women, throwers Madison Cicierski and Anna Gardom, will also return. Gardom went to the NCAA regional meet a year ago in the javelin.
The extra year won’t bring back the bittersweet feeling of a canceled spring season, especially when the Bengals felt they could have accomplished so much, but Merkley is asking her athletes to look at the positives.
”One message I know I sent from New Mexico was a picture of Trey standing on the empty podium,” Merkley said. “He wasn’t allowed to perform and do what he set out to do. I came across (a quote) that said, what are you becoming in pursuit of your dreams, because you might not get your dream. And I think that’s focusing on the process and what are we learning, what are we doing? ... I still think that the things they’re doing to be accountable, to be hard-working, to give your best every day, those are the things that are developing who they are as people, (even if) those outcome goals don’t always happen.”