Ryan Zuhlsdorf walked into 3M Arena at Mariucci on Thursday fully expecting to practice and watch film ahead of the Gophers’ Big Ten semifinal game at Penn State this weekend.
He walked out in the evening blindsided by the abrupt end to his college career.
“All the guys are, we’re walking around the locker room, just waiting to see what’s going on,” Zuhlsdorf said. “Like, ‘What are we even supposed to do? Like, what’s going to happen with my life?’”
That answer used to be clear: Win Saturday, win the Big Ten championship, compete for a national championship. But by Thursday afternoon, the coronavirus pandemic had forced the Big Ten Conference to cancel all remaining sporting events and the NCAA to cancel the rest of its championships.
So the Gophers season was suddenly over at 16-14-7.
The first indication of trouble came Wednesday, when Penn State announced it would not allow fans at the Saturday semifinal at Pegula Ice Arena. Gophers coach Bob Motzko said he had a feeling of “no turning back” that night, when the NBA suspended its season after two players tested positive for COVID-19.
“There was just this wishful thinking that we were going to find a way, but I think you just knew deep down that they were past any point of return,” Motzko said. “And as crazy as everything is, things like this probably had to be done.”
Motzko recalled the rapid change during the day, how he was on a conference call at 10:30 a.m. and witnessed the situation fluctuate even in the span of that call. He eventually held the official meeting with his players around 4:30 p.m., though they had seen the news on social media by then.
“It’s just been a roller coaster of emotions for me,” Zuhlsdorf said. “I wish me and the other seniors had a chance to battle for that Big Ten championship and possibly a natty championship. … You’re angry. You’re sad that your season’s over. And you’re just thinking about so much because the coronavirus is a big deal, and we have to take it seriously. But being a senior, you wish you had that last crack at it.”
Zuhlsdorf, a defenseman, was one of three Gophers seniors this season, along with defenseman and captain Tyler Nanne and forward Joey Marooney. Motzko said seeing the looks on those three faces was what hurt the most.
Nanne said the situation was a shock and still feels surreal. But the team spent time together Thursday night trying to find the positives.
“We won our last game, and we won our last game at home,” Nanne said. “So I think today was just kind of a glass half-full kind of day and reflect on things. It’s out of our control. It’s sad. But it’s something that you really can’t do anything about.”
The Gophers will spend the next several days trying to find closure for something that never properly finished. But regardless of the “wild” way it ended, Zuhlsdorf has nothing but pride for his team this season, how it turned a slow start into a hopeful future.
“I’m really proud … of us seniors for being able to keep everyone together and happy, and we were able to turn the ship around and get it pointed in the right direction,” Zuhlsdorf said. “And for me, that’s all I could ask for, is being able to leave this program with improvement and having the younger guys know what the culture needs to be like for the success that they’re going to have next year and the years after that.”