One of the most gut-wrenching costs of sports coming to a halt as a result of the coronavirus pandemic was paid by the Labette women’s basketball team.
Less than a week before the second-ranked team in the nation was set to travel north to Port Huron, Michigan for the Division II national tournament, the NJCAA canceled all championships and spring sports. The move followed the precedent set by pro sports leagues and the NCAA.
The decision, while necessary to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, was devastating to head coach Mitch Rolls and the Cardinals’ players.
Rolls said he learned of the tournament’s cancellation, which came on March 16, during the middle of practice. The fifth-year head coach pulled up his phone, saw the e-mail and immediately called off practice — a season that saw Labette win its first Kansas Jayhawk Conference and region title in a decade was over in a moment.
“It was the weirdest thing I’ve ever been a part of,” Rolls said. “It’s the weirdest way I’ve ever ended the season.”
Gift Sampson, a sophomore forward, said her teammates were stunned at the sudden loss of a chance to compete for a national title.
“It went from a shock to a disappointment,” Sampson said. “Everybody was sad in the locker room. We realized we were probably going to go home and not see each other.”
Jessica Martino, another sophomore forward, described a locker room scene after practice was abruptly ended that was full of tears.
“I didn’t believe it at first,” Martino said. “Practice was canceled and we didn’t know what to do. We expected two more months to stay with each other. We were all sisters and didn’t know our last game would be our last. So it was upsetting.
“When we found out, it was heartbreaking. We put so much effort into this program, just for it to be taken away from us. There were definitely a lot of tears throughout the whole team. We held each other accountable to reach the standard.”
Diamond Jones, a sophomore guard that was named the KJCCC Defensive Player of the Year, said while the cancellation was shocking, it was also came without surprise.
“I figured, with all this going on, it was going to happen,” Jones said. “The NCAA canceled all its tournaments. But I was sad. It was a once-in-a-lifetime situation and we can’t experience it.”
The loss of the opportunity to compete in the national tournament wasn’t the only opportunity taken — Labette was ranked No. 2 in the country and held the second seed in the 16-team bracket. The Cardinals had a very real chance to play for, if not win, the national title.
“The talent was and potential was there,” Rolls said. “But what set them apart was individual personalities. Several kids displayed natural leadership abilities. We had nine sophomores. At one point, everybody had a leadership role. We had high quality character and intelligent kids.”
Radical changes to daily routines kept coming for the players and Rolls. Labette suspended all in-person classes and moved them online for the remainder of the semester. The NJCAA suspended on-campus and off-campus recruiting.
Nearly all of the women’s basketball players have returned home to their families, ranging from Washington to New York to Michigan. Only a handful of players chose to remain at the Cardinal Villas in Parsons to finish out their semester online.
Jones, who hails from Clarksville, Tennessee, is one of the few who stayed in town.
“Talking to my parents, they figured it was safe for me to stay here and finish my classes,” Jones said. “That way, I would be able to finish my classes and have the right resources around me.”
Martino, who grew up in New York City, elected not to return home — New York has become the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic with a nation-leading 20,000-plus cases at the time of publication.
Instead, Martino moved to Houston, Texas to live with her father to prepare for her next journey — she is committed to Division I Texas Rio Grande Valley, where former Labette head coach Anna Nimz is now the associate head coach.
Martino said she stays in daily contact with her family in New York.
“It’s hard, because I’m hoping they’re OK,” Martino said. “It’s upsetting I can’t go home and I can’t play in the national tournament. Everything is happening back-to-back.”
Two other players — Jamiela Moore and Nicole Ajayi, hail from New York and Seattle respectively. Both returned home despite the areas being among the most heavily hit by the coronavirus.
Rolls confirmed that both players are safe.
As Labette women’s basketball adjusts to life and moves on, Rolls said he’s focused on hitting the recruiting trail from his phone.
“I’ve worked a lot to try and stay busy,” Rolls said. “I just finished my recruiting class, so that’s been goal No. 1 since all of this went down. I just want to keep my mind off of it.”
Rolls is also remaining in constant contact with his players to ensure classes are finished and his unsigned sophomores find four-year homes.
“My phone basically has to stay on a charger while I use it all day,” Rolls said. “I’m in constant communication with recruiting and checking on grades. I’m bugging them for sure. I know they don’t want to hear from me potentially, but they will.”
Nine sophomores in total were on the Labette roster, four of which remain unsigned.
Kymora Westerfield (Rollins), Martino (Texas Rio Grande Valley, Sampson (USC-Upstate), Denijsha Wilson (USC-Upstate) and Jordan Chiles (Tusculum) are all signed.
Jones, Nia’gara Washington, Angel Williams and Taylor Watkins are the four unsigned players and all have offers from four-year schools.
“The coaches are being pretty lenient about it,” Jones said. “They’ve all been texting me and checking up. I should be making my decision pretty soon.”
Rolls said he’s heard from countless members of the community who’ve expressed their condolences.
“People apologize like it’s their fault,” Rolls said. “I’ve had people on the verge of tears for us. I appreciate that, but it was out of everybody’s hands. It’s not just us. We can’t cry over spilled milk. But it’s still unfortunate.”
The legacy of the 2019-20 Labette women’s basketball team got cemented early but will nonetheless standout. It was just the third team sport at the school to win a conference title since 2010 and the fifth to qualify for the national tournament.
But the ultimate “what if” will also hover over them.
“It’s a bittersweet experience,” Sampson said. “We were the No. 2 seed in the country, won the regionals and won conference. We all achieved that together. But now I have more to fight for. We all individually could have achieved more. So now I want to keep chasing greatness.”
For Rolls, he’ll always hold the standard for future teams that this Labette group met and remind them of the opportunity lost.
“The girls know I’m big on challenging them,” Rolls said. “This will always be the standard. When we get here in August for every new season, the bar is the 2020 team and get a step above them. The standard for Labette every year will be that precedent. Now every new class has to bust through the door this year’s group didn’t get to go through.”