Senior athletes reflect on cancellation of spring sports seasons

Sean Meyers -

Men's Golf Seniors 2020Photo by Robert Cifone

PITTSBURGH --- When Garrett Belich (Aliquippa, Pa.) finished the 18th hole at the Belterra Golf Course in Florence, Ind. in early October, he had no idea it would be the final hole of his collegiate career. Belich, a senior, is among nearly a dozen Carlow athletes who had their final campaigns cut short as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

When the NAIA joined the NCAA in cancelling all spring sports in March, many of those planning to wrap up their collegiate careers over the next few months were hit with a harsh reality - that they likely wouldn't have the sendoff they envisioned.

"It's very disappointing that it had to end this way," said Belich, who is majoring in business management and is slated to graduate at the end of this semester.  "In the fall season, the few matches that we did have, I really started to feel confident in myself competing at the collegiate level, and really was hoping for a good few matches to go out there and show what I can do one last time."

Now, he won't have that opportunity. Although spring athletes were granted an additional year of eligibility, Belich has decided to move forward in pursuit of a career. The next time he hits the links, it will be in recreational form.

"I think it's just the start, honestly," Belich said of his outlook for the sport. "Golf is a game you can play your entire life. Now it's just a time to look at it from a recreational standpoint."

Belich was one of three seniors on the men's golf roster this year. While Nicholas Paone (Export, Pa.) graduated in the winter, Belich and Ryan Bradigan-Barnett (Dayton, Pa.) looked forward to the spring session that was slated to begin on March 21 with a tri-match against Point Park University and Grove City College. 

Bradigan-Barnett still has one semester remaining academically, so he is expected to return to the team for the fall season, according to Carlow golf coach Ryan Shank.

For Belich, though, he'll fondly remember his athletic career with the Celtics. Among those highlights was a terrific finish last year in a match against the Pioneers, when Belich hit an eight iron within five feet of the pin, and made birdie on the 18th hole.

"Garrett is one of those kids who just puts his head down and works. He's actually improving in every match; every time that we see him play, he's getting better," said Shank. "He's going to enjoy golf for a long time."

Perhaps more than any of his individual accolades, though, Belich will remember the relationships forged with his teammates and coaches over the years.

"We're all a very close-knit group of guys on the golf team. We're all in close contact - texting, calling on a weekly basis. We just have to come together and be there for one another, and hopefully once this all clears up, we could get out and play," he noted. "I'm going to miss those practices and all those matches with the guys. We spent a lot of good times out there."

Belich is not the only Carlow golfer whose career ended prematurely, however. On the women's side, former national champion Natalie Abt (Glenshaw, Pa.) also experienced the same fate.

Natalie Abt action shot 2020
Photo by Robert Cifone

Abt, pursuing her master's degree in fraud and forensics, expects to reach that achievement in August, and then move on from Carlow University. When she learned of the NAIA's decision to cancel all spring sports in mid-March, she began to reminisce about her journey.

"When they officially called it, I couldn't help but reflect back on my high school and college career," she said. "After a couple of days, I was pretty much accepting the fact that my college career was over, and I could move on to just recreational golf. It kind of stunk for a little bit, but I think I'm ok with it now."

That journey has seen plenty of ups and downs during her time as a member of the Celtics. When she came to Carlow, the women's golf program was just beginning. Abt became the standard bearer for the team, culminating with her winning the USCAA Golf National Championship in 2017. She fired a two-round score of 160 at the Penn State Blue Course in State College, Pa., becoming the first individual or team at Carlow University to win a national athletic event.

The subsequent seasons were injury-plagued, though, as Abt sustained foot and shoulder injuries. She began returning to form in the fall, however, and it looked like a strong spring season was on the horizon.

While she plans to continue golfing, there's no replicating the experience of playing for the Celtics

"Recreationally, it's more just about getting out there with some friends and trying to have a good time, without the pressure or caring who wins," Abt explained. "When I was playing for Carlow and competing that way, you're representing the school, the team, and you want to do well. You have to take things really seriously on the course and while you're practicing."

The two other senior golfers on the women's team, Maria Lamonde (Pittsburgh, Pa.) and Samantha Stefanik (Apollo, Pa.), could potentially return for next season, according to Shank.

Golf was certainly not the only sport affected by the spring cancellations, however, as Carlow's softball, track & field, and tennis teams all featured seniors. While some of those athletes are expected to return next year after being granted an additional year of eligibility, others will likely move on after this semester.

Among those is softball player Ashley Hoak (Elizabeth, Pa.), the only senior on the Celtics roster. Hoak, the Celtics starting third baseman, played in 10 games in March before the season was cancelled. Those contests took place during the team's week-long trip to Florida.

Ashley Hoak action shot 2020
Photo by Karina Graziani

"Whenever we got the word basically the plug was going to be pulled (on the rest of the season), I think our focus at that point turned to Ashley, our senior," Carlow softball coach Glenn Zinsmeister explained. "For all of these girls, the end is always something that they know is coming, but you don't really realize it until it's there. For Ashley, it came several months sooner than she wanted it to."

As a result, heading into the would-be the final game of the season, the Celtics and their opponent, Lawrence Tech, held a makeshift senior day.

Hoak, a nursing major, is expected to pursue her career following the spring semester.

On the track & field team, senior Javondii Myers likely will fall just short of a major accomplishment. In the indoor session, Myers narrowly missed qualifying in the high jump for the NAIA National Championships.

Javondii Myers action 2019
Photo courtesy of River States Conference Sports Information

"Unfortunately, we went out on kind of a sour note with him," Carlow track and field head coach Tony Anderson said of Myers. "He was trying to qualify for indoor nationals, and tweaked his foot and ankle. He was very close. He was only a centimeter off from qualifying. I was very confident that he would be able to qualify during the outdoor season if he stayed healthy."

Myers, a native of Columbia, South Carolina, is expected to move on after he graduates in perfusion technology.

His fellow seniors on the men's team, Devin Lewis (Charlotte, N.C.) and John McDonagh (Pittsburgh, Pa.), could potentially return to the program next year with the additional eligibility.

Meanwhile, Megan Horgan (Bethel Park, Pa.) and Katie Winter (Pittsburgh, Pa.) are expected to conclude their track & field careers with the Celtics, while Gabrielle Kluger (Yorktown Heights, N.Y.) could potentially return to the mix next season.

Likewise, Julianna Mamajek (Whitehall, Pa.), the only senior on the women's tennis team, is expected to return next year, according to head coach Gina Lovaglio.

Julianna Mamajek action 2019
Photo by Robert Cifone

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