On March 12, 2020, Solomon Nielsen was in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, preparing with his Augsburg teammates for the NCAA Division III wrestling championships that would start the next morning. He carried a 23-2 record and had his sights set on winning a national title.
Then came the news: The NCAA announced all remaining winter sports and all spring sports were canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Fast forward 11 months to Feb. 3, 2021, and disappointment rained down again for Nielsen and other Division III athletes when the NCAA canceled all winter sports championships.
D-III basketball and hockey players, wrestlers, indoor track athletes and swimmers and divers were the first to see their national tournaments or meets canceled because of COVID-19 for a second consecutive year.
"It had the same feeling as last year: They're taking something away from us," said Nielsen, a senior 174-pounder and Auggies team captain.
Jordan Hansen, a senior forward on the Hamline women's hockey team, feels the disappointment, too, for a Pipers squad that had national title aspirations.
"It's adversity. We're going to get through it, but at the moment, it's very frustrating," said Hansen, a second-team All-America selection and the reigning MIAC Player of the Year.
Last year, it was all NCAA divisions taking the hit of losing championships. This time, it's only Division III, so far.
The Division III Championships Committee recommended the winter sports championships be canceled because of low participation numbers. Basketball, swimming and diving, and indoor track and field used a 60% threshold of teams sponsoring the sport and still competing this winter to guarantee that a championship would be held. For hockey and wrestling, the threshold was 70%. Division I and Division II winter championships still are planned.
"This was a very difficult decision to make, and we are saddened to do so," Fayneese Miller, Hamline president and president of the NCAA Presidents Council, said in a statement.
Tough blow for Pipers
At Hamline, the Pipers have been a women's hockey program on the rise under coach Natalie Darwitz, the U.S. Hockey Hall of Famer. Hamline advanced to the NCAA championship game in 2019 and finished third the year before. With players such as Hansen, who had 11 goals, 17 assists and a plus-32 rating last season, the Pipers had designs on making noise nationally again.
"You're questioning the logic behind [the decision]," Hansen said. " … We're at a loss of words as a team. We're at the point where we just have to change our mind-set, play the games we get to play and make the most of it."
Darwitz is disappointed that the NCAA didn't make an exception to its thresholds of teams playing this winter. She sees Division I programs and high school teams competing for championships, while D-III teams won't get that chance.
"I get that they're looking at numbers, but it's important to reward teams that are actually in the race and trying to complete the marathon," Darwitz said. "This feels like they shut down the marathon at Mile 18. 'OK, if we don't have everybody doing it, nobody's going to get an opportunity.' "
According to NCAA data, 51.4% of schools sponsoring women's hockey were playing this season.
"Given the situation that we're in a pandemic, why couldn't they make exceptions?" Darwitz added. "Reward the teams and institutions that have gone about trying to play. … I get that it might be an asterisk year."
The NCAA isn't charging players a year of eligibility if they play in the 2020-21 season, and Hansen, a Cretin-Derham Hall graduate from White Bear Lake, plans to come back next season. Some teammates, she said, faced more difficult decisions.
"We've had a lot of discussions. Our tuition isn't cheap by any means," said Hansen, who plans to go to law school. "Do you give up your sport for the rest of the year because we don't get those luxuries like the tournament, or do you pay that expense and maybe only have a handful of games?"
Hamline has won both of its games played so far, while six have been postponed or canceled. The Pipers have eight games remaining, COVID-19 permitting.
The resiliency of her players impresses Darwitz. "These kids are just taking gut punches left and right, and they just keep coming back," she said.
A ray of hope for Auggies
Augsburg has won 13 NCAA D-III men's wrestling championships, and the Auggies technically remain the reigning national champs after capturing the 2019 crown. The news of the cancellation stung, but the team quickly adjusted its focus.
"Right away, it was like, 'Whoa, are we done?' " said Nielsen, who entered the season with a 78-18 career record at Augsburg. "We've transitioned to having the mind-set of getting the next-best thing."
And there might be a next-best thing for D-III wrestlers. USA Wrestling and the National Wrestling Coaches Association are trying to put together a tournament to replace the Division III championships. A target date of March 12 at a site in Iowa has been discussed.
"The wheels are turning on that," said Jim Moulsoff, Augsburg's co-head coach along with Tony Valek. "They are willing to host a tournament. … It's an opportunity to compete and prepare for next year."
Nielsen, who plans to return to the program next season, welcomes the chance to wrestle for a championship, even one without the NCAA branding.
"Our schedule is not at all normal and having a national tournament would be the only thing that could really test ourselves," said Nielsen, who is ranked No. 3 nationally at 174.
Augsburg has participated in one non-scored meet and a triangular so far. Three dual meets have been canceled and three remain. For Moulsoff, controlling what you can control is his team's approach.
"The immediate reaction is, 'What's the purpose?' The purpose is still the same — to become better," he said. "We just have to be a little more patient."