Just two days after beating Tennessee in early March, the North Carolina softball team was looking forward to its first ACC road series against Virginia.
Then, the world of sports turned upside down.
When the NBA suspended its season due to the COVID-19 outbreak and many conference basketball tournaments barred fan attendance, the team was traveling through Knoxville, Tennessee. Then, head coach Donna Papa found out there would be a conference call at 2 p.m. to discuss the spread of the virus. Having an idea of how the call might end, the team stopped for lunch.
“We kind of had the ‘last supper’ at Cheesecake Factory, where I allowed them to have soft drinks and dessert, which is something I don’t normally do,” Papa said. “I wanted them to have a great meal because in the back of my mind, I knew that we would be going home.”
On the call, she found out her prediction was spot-on. The Tar Heels were told that the NCAA was canceling all spring competition, which ended their season.
“Everyone was emotional because, as teammates, they worked so hard from August through this time just to have the season cut in half,” Papa said.
When the season was canceled, Papa mentioned that she was especially upset for the senior class, because they wouldn’t be able to participate in the team’s usual end-of-season festivities to celebrate their careers. Her concerns were alleviated, to some extent, when a few weeks later the NCAA ruled that all spring athletes would be given an extra year of eligibility. Although some members of the senior class are forgoing that option to pursue career-related opportunities, Papa said the team plans to see two senior starters returning: Campbell Hutcherson and Brittany Pickett.
Hutcherson was a key presence in the lineup before the season shut down. In 23 starts at second base, her .341 batting average ranked second on the team while boasting an impressive .996 OPS.
Pickett, who planned on redshirting last season after being sidelined with a thumb injury to her pitching hand, will be a major boost to a pitching staff that was short-handed at times this season. A three-time member of the All-ACC first team, she has a career ERA of 2.39.