DURHAM -- Patrick Kenney and the University of New Hampshire ski team got their 2020 NCAA Skiing Championships off to a great start at Bridger Bowl and the Crosscut Mountain Sports Center in Bozeman, Mont., last week.
Then history happened.
Kenney, a junior, crushed his second run in the giant slalom on the first day of competition Wednesday and came away with a fourth-place finish, earning first-team All American honors with the team’s best individual result at the NCAAs since 2013.
The Wildcats held a solid ninth-place spot overall after Thursday’s freestyle Nordic competition.
They had Kenney and senior Emma Woodhouse and the rest of the Alpine gang coming back for slalom, Woodhouse’s favorite event, on Friday and were excited about the possibilities ahead.
The harsh news arrived before dinner Thursday. The NCAA had canceled its winter and spring championships due to COVID-19. Effective immediately.
At first, the skiers felt they might be exempt from the decision.
“We thought, ‘Maybe that doesn’t apply to us,’” Kenney said. “We’re here. We’re going to race tomorrow. We were in a healthy environment. It seemed like a safe haven at the time. Everything is good. We might as well compete.”
Within a half hour, the word was confirmed. The championships were officially over after day two of the four-day event.
“It was a tough pill for all of us to swallow,” Kenney said.
The news hit especially hard for Woodhouse, the only senior among UNH’s six Alpine racers at the NCAAs this year and one of the two seniors in UNH’s 10-person contingent in Montana, along with Nordic skier Will Bodewes.
“That was Emma’s best event coming up,” said Cory Schwartz, coordinator of the Wildcat ski team and Nordic head coach. “All year she’d been thinking about going out big in the slalom.”
Instead, the races were off.
“I’ve definitely never experienced anything like that,” Woodhouse said. “It was a shock when they just canceled it. I was really upset. It’s my senior year and I was really looking forward to that specific race on Friday. I knew I could have done well. I couldn’t really believe it.”
There was to be no slalom. No Nordic classical races Saturday. No awards ceremony to end the championships.
The championships were half-completed. But they were all done.
“Everyone had their routine, their routine of what they were going to do,” Schwartz said. “You’re in Bozeman, Mont., and the Alpine team was going to compete on Friday and we were going to prepare to race on Saturday and all of a sudden there really was nothing to do. You’re thinking about your athletes and how they’ve worked all year for this and you feel sad for them.”
The Wildcats thought they might get to squeeze their championships in, but in the end realized they could not.
“At first we were getting the feeling we’d be able to get this done and everyone could rush home,” Schwartz said. “So people were surprised, but also understood you can’t pick one sport to continue. At another level, everyone understood this is bigger than what we were doing.”
Woodhouse had a nice finish in Wednesday’s giant slalom and she had an impressive career. She was 12th in the GS on Wednesday, finishing just outside the top 10 and an All American spot. A year ago, she was All American in both slalom and giant slalom.
She was the top slalom skier in the East all season this year and was fired up for Friday’s race.
“She had a real good chance to podium (finish in the top three),” said Brian Blank, the head coach of the Alpine team. “We were looking forward to seeing what she could do. This was her last race and she was prepared for that and looking forward to it. To get it taken away at the last minute, there really was no closure to her season.”
Shock. Disbelief. A lack of closure.
There’s been way more than enough of that to go around in the last week in the UNH athletics community and well beyond.
The Wildcats and their fellow skiers at the 2020 NCAA Skiing championships were among those to take the very first blows.
“As I’ve said to a couple of people, of all the things that have happened over the last week or so in athletics, that might have been the most shocking,” said UNH director of athletics Marty Scarano. “Those kids were literally called off the hill halfway through their championships. I don’t know if there’s anything more traumatic than that.”
Called off the hill and told their seasons and, for some, careers were over.
There was good news that came out of the NCAAs and Montana for the UNH ski team, which turns out to be the last of the school’s teams to compete this year.
The goal heading into the championships was to get back inside the top 10 in the NCAAs and the Wildcats did that with a ninth-place finish with a young team that returns most of its skiers for next year.
“They’ll definitely come in next year with lots of momentum and lots of motivation to do well,” Woodhouse said.
That they will.