With sports paused, life altered, athletes make do, make new

DAVE CAMPBELL
·12-min read

Parker Tuomie and his Minnesota State hockey team were thriving last season, pursuing the program's first NCAA Tournament victory with a fervor that suggested a bigger goal than that.

As the winter transpired, news from Tuomie's father coaching overseas about the virus outbreak portended a major roadblock lurking further down the path. First, the top-tier league in Tuomie's native Germany had banned postgame handshake lines. Then, the season was canceled.

“I knew that we weren't far away from that possibility,” Tuomie said, “but it did happen quicker than I thought it would.”

March 12, 2020, that tipping-point day of dread for so many as the dark clouds of COVID-19 drifted in, was the end of the run for the second-ranked Mavericks and their 31-5-2 record. The plug was pulled on the rest of the WCHA playoffs, then hours later on the entire NCAA Tournament. Tuomie and his teammates gathered for goodbyes to their national championship chase — and one another.

“A lot of tears were flowing. It was just a very emotional day,” said Tuomie, one of seven seniors on the 2019-20 squad. "Every year you have a feeling that you can do it, but right from the get-go we had that feeling that this was our year and we were going to be the first to do it.”

Life often strays from the preferred script, as much of the world was reminded by the pandemic.

By summertime, with opportunities to play professionally in the U.S. drying up, Tuomie was back in Germany. He signed with Eisbären Berlin in the Deutsche Eishockey Liga, where his dad is the head coach of a different team. This was a goal of his all along, not some last-ditch idea, but the way it unfolded wasn't ideal.

What a time he had on American ice, though. Three years of junior hockey. Four seasons at Minnesota State, with a 114-36-9 career record. Being part of the WCHA, the same storied league his dad once skated in for St. Cloud State and Wisconsin. Playing in front of relatives of his Minnesota native father, Tray Tuomie, who married a German while playing there and stayed to raise a family.

Marc Michaelis became one of Parker Tuomie's close pals, a fellow German and four-year roommate in that class of Mavericks seniors last year who recently made his NHL debut with Vancouver. Tuomie was returning home around 4 a.m. from a road trip with his team, so he took advantage of the time difference and turned on the Canucks game live. He fell asleep on the couch after the first period and caught up to the action with his friend in the morning.

Maybe next month Tuomie, Michaelis and the others who used to wear the purple and gold will be able to tune in to the NCAA Frozen Four and cheer for the Mavericks from afar. They're currently ranked third, poised again for a postseason run. Perhaps there'll be a twinge of envy or regret, but mostly they'll feel pride in the program they left behind and a sense of identity as the class that got stonewalled by a pandemic.

“I got a chance to see how special it can be to be around a group of guys for four years and really make those friendships and those bonds that will last forever,” Tuomie said.

___

"IN THE MOMENT"

As the Farmington Tigers girls basketball team prepared last year for the program's first appearance in the Minnesota state high school tournament, head coach Liz Carpentier passed out a journal to each of her players. Not for game-planning, just for memory-keeping.

The good-luck cards from the kindergarteners. The pep fest. The team restaurant outings. The police car-and-fire truck escort out of town, on the way to the quarterfinal game. The get-out-of-school early excuse.

“I really wanted them to be in the moment,” Carpentier said, “just so they could enjoy the week and look back on it.”

After fighting through a couple of significant injuries to important players earlier in the season, the Tigers were crushing it as the No. 2 seed in the Class 4A bracket. They cruised to victory in the semifinals on March 12 and into the title game against Hopkins, which boasted a 62-game winning streak and UConn-bound guard Paige Bueckers.

The sports world was swiftly shutting down amid the COVID-19 outbreak, and an attendance limit had been set for the finals for March 14. Still, Carpentier figured they'd be able to finish the tournament. Between celebrating the feat, handling ticket logistics and strategizing for the championship, she didn't have time to dwell on this worst-case scenario.

The cancellation announcement came before practice on March 13. That end-of-season speech Carpentier had rehearsed in her head was moved up a day. As the girls gathered as an official team one last time, they made a quintessential stop at Dairy Queen before re-watching the semifinal game at a teammate's house.

One year later, the Tigers are undefeated. Ultimately beaten by an invisible opponent in 2020, they're determined to avoid going down on the court in 2021 — and grateful for each moment together in this tenuous season. A couple of positive cases could bring their games to another halt.

The five seniors from last season's team, four of whom are playing NCAA sports, are among their biggest fans. Carpentier will always remember the day she had to tell them they were done playing.

“I told them, ‘You’re going to go through a lot tougher things in life than not getting to play a basketball game,’ but it meant a lot to them,” Carpentier said. “I think they look back on it now and say: ‘That was the best week of our life. That was the greatest.’”

___

TIME TO MOVE ON

As far back as grade school, Quinn Alo had his heart set on playing football for North Dakota State. He grew up two hours southwest of Fargo in tiny LaMoure, North Dakota, where passion for the Bison spiked in 2011 when they began a run of eight FCS championships in nine years.

Alo could have played at North Dakota on a scholarship. Instead, he accepted a preferred walk-on spot from North Dakota State in 2016. Part of the recruiting pitch was that if he stuck it out to become a fifth-year senior — most players redshirt at NDSU — he would get to experience the 2020 season opener at Pac-12 power Oregon.

As a backup offensive lineman and special teams player with his degree in hand, he knew football was about over for him. So he planned to get married on Aug. 1, play his last year and move on with life. The virus didn't yield to anybody's plans, though.

Alo's wedding was held. The season wasn't, save for an Oct. 3 game NDSU hurriedly scheduled against Central Arkansas. Missing out on that game against Oregon, fresh off a Rose Bowl victory, stung the most.

Returning for the Bison's eight-game spring season was not an option, given the amount of financial and emotional support he'd had from his now-wife, Kendra, a certified nursing assistant. It was time for Alo to give some of that back to her, so he went to work in sales while finishing his master’s degree in business administration and hunting for a house with his wife.

They attended the Bison’s opener against Youngstown State on Feb. 21 and sat with the parents of two of his old teammates and groomsmen. There were no regrets for Alo, no longing to be on the field, only missing being with his football friends.

“I was lucky to spend four years there and met my wife, met my groomsmen and got a great job,” Alo said. “We’re still living in Fargo, so we’ll be going to Bison games for years to come.”

___

“WAS THIS ALL WORTH IT?”

Kyle Briggs was a late-blooming wrestler, finally making his mark on the mat for the long-strong program at Wartburg College.

The NCAA Division III championships in 2020 were even scheduled for his hometown of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He was 26-2 with 12 pins, seeded No. 2 at 174 pounds and even more motivated by a 5-4 defeat in the 2019 semifinals.

“This is my time to win,” Briggs recalled thinking to himself. “In 2020, it was a totally different attitude shift. It wasn’t like I was going to try to put myself in the best position. It was more like, ‘This is mine to lose now.’”

On March 12, after lunch with his family at home before joining teammates for an afternoon workout at the arena, the NCAA canceled its championships as a precaution against the spread of COVID-19 — less than 24 hours before the wrestling competition was supposed to start.

“We felt we got the rug slipped out from underneath us since we were actually at the location that morning and had trained and we were all down to weight,” Briggs said. “I knew nothing will ever compare to this as far as shock and disappointment goes.”

So when the NCAA announced on Feb. 3 it was canceling Division III winter championships again for 2021, the news that reached Briggs at the grocery store didn't sting quite as much. He went unbeaten this season, winning an individual title on Saturday at a national Division III tournament arranged by USA Wrestling and the National Wrestling Coaches Association in Coralville, Iowa.

“Part of me is really happy just to have something because it doesn’t feel like we’ve had any closure for our seasons. It really messes with your training and your head, like, ‘Was this all worth it?’” Briggs said before the final meet.

He'll probably hold off on graduation this spring for a re-do on his senior year in 2021-22. Most likely, he’ll return to Wartburg, though he's thought about trying to join a Division I program as a graduate transfer. There are still goals to achieve, with that abrupt end to the 2019-20 season never far from his mind as motivation.

"I was doing pretty good for myself,” Briggs said, “but I never felt like a champion.”

___

FAMILY MATTERS

U.S. Olympic marathon trials champion Aliphine Tuliamuk is taking baby steps in her return to training. She did, well, just have a baby.

The original plan was to start a family after the Tokyo Olympics. But when the Summer Games were postponed by the pandemic, the 31-year-old Tuliamuk and her fiance, Tim Gannon, decided not to wait. Their daughter, Zoe Cherotich Gannon, was born on Jan. 13.

That gave Tuliamuk about six months to return to the form that allowed her to win the U.S. marathon trials on Feb. 29, 2020. The women’s Olympic marathon will be held on Aug. 7 in Sapporo, where it’s expected to be cooler than Tokyo.

This is a marathon and not a sprint, of course, so she’s been easing her way back into this at home in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Strength training, elliptical machine, stationary bike. Her doctor wanted a minimum of eight weeks of rest, but her clearance to run again came on Thursday.

Tuliamuk grew up in Kenya as one of 32 siblings, all of whom share a father. She went to Iowa State and Wichita State and became a U.S. citizen in 2016. Recently, the USA Track and Field Foundation awarded her with its first elite maternity grant, which helps support women who are pregnant or recovering after birth.

“I’m very joyful,” Tuliamuk said. “To have my daughter go with me to the Tokyo Olympics, it’s a dream of mine that I’ve always wanted to have, but I really didn’t think that it was going to happen this soon.”

___

“I CAN'T THINK OF A BETTER WAY TO END"

As the coronavirus pandemic wiped out the entire minor league season, former New York Mets farmhand Jeremy Wolf spent most of 2020 helping others sustain their careers. The nonprofit he co-founded, More Than Baseball, raised over $650,000 in grants for players, many of whom were cut midway through the summer.

Before the shutdown, Wolf had plans for a final on-field hurrah of his own. An outfielder and first baseman from Scottsdale, Arizona, Wolf joined Team Israel in 2019 and was preparing to compete at the Olympics in Tokyo — as one of several Jewish U.S. players on the roster.

A year later, that dream is still alive with the postponed Summer Games set to take place in four months. There's one problem for Wolf:

“I haven’t faced live pitching since September of 2019,” he said.

Those at-bats came at the European Baseball Championships, where Israel finished first to clinch its Olympic spot. Before that, Wolf hadn’t faced a real pitcher since 2017, when an injury led to his release by the Mets.

Kept off the field for 16 months, Wolf is preparing for the Olympics with the resources of a weekend warrior. He's staying in shape at a nearby fitness-chain gym, throwing long toss with a buddy and taking batting practice off a machine at a batting cage.

When minor league pitchers arrive in Arizona for spring training this month, he’s hoping someone will let him stand in for at-bats. He’ll join an independent ball team in Ohio in late May for a few weeks of games. Then he’ll meet Team Israel in July for an exhibition series in New York.

Wolf is an alternate on Israel’s roster, and he won’t know for sure if he’s going to Tokyo until those exhibition games end. Either he’ll board a plane for Japan or he’ll go home to Arizona and hang up his cleats for good.

“It would mean everything, right?” he said. “To think my career is over in 2017, to have another opportunity to play in 2019 and then actually make the Olympics? I can’t think of a better way to end my career. Myself and a lot of our guys have been through the long and winding road of baseball. I’m happy I can end it in a way I’m proud of and I know I left everything out there.”

___

AP Sports Writers Pat Graham, Eric Olson and Jake Seiner contributed to this report.

___

More AP sports coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/apf-sports and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports