After the Atlantic 10 and NCAA canceled spring sports amid the COVID-19 pandemic, student-athletes set to graduate around the country were left in limbo.
In late March, the NCAA voted to grant impacted student-athletes another year of eligibility, leaving it up to individual schools to decide whether to offer that extended eligibility to their athletes. At least 14 of the 49 eligible athletes – which include 45 seniors and four graduate students – in their last year of play will stay on for a second shot at closure, according to team rosters.
Steve Barmakian, baseball’s fifth-year utility player, said the NCAA’s decision was welcome news. Barmakian said he was instantly “all in” to get a second chance at closing out his baseball career when baseball head coach Gregg Ritchie asked him to return.
“Your whole life, you grow up and you know that one day you’re going to have to stop playing,” Barmakian said. “You have no idea when it’s going to be, but you hope it’s as late as possible. And when that decision came out, I had this feeling of hope that it was not going to end with a sour taste.”
Sports law and management experts said the extra season is a good move from the NCAA, but the increase in athletes could financially strain athletic departments. Athletic officials said the department is underfunded and spread thin, recently announcing that seven programs will be entirely cut at the end of the 2020-21 season.
The NCAA is allowing schools to draw from its Student Assistance Fund to pay for scholarships to ease the financial burden on athletes and universities. Student-athletes can dip into that fund to financially support another year or semester of tuition.
While Jaret Edwards said he was excited by the NCAA’s decision, he originally was unsure if he could return because he “didn’t budget for a fifth year of school.” But thanks to assistance from Ritchie, pitching coach Rick Oliveri and the NCAA, Edwards said he was able to return and enroll in a graduate program at GW.
Some returning seniors said they decided to alter their original post-graduation plans to pursue graduate degrees. Both Edwards, who is pursuing a master’s in statistics, and Barmakian, who enrolled in a one-year program management and leadership certificate program, said if there hadn’t been a pandemic, they likely would have pushed their graduate programs to years down the line.
“I don’t look at this as something I’m begrudgingly doing in order to play baseball,” Barmakian said. “I’m excited about what this program holds and what I can gain from it.”
Of the seven seniors on last year’s roster, four players chose to return to the diamond for one more year. Baseball led the way with the highest number of returning players in their final year of eligibility. Softball and men’s rowing each had three players return, while women’s rowing returned two athletes, according to teams’ respective rosters.
Women’s water polo and golf are each bringing back one student-athlete for an extra year of eligibility. Sailing, women’s outdoor track and field, men’s outdoor track and field, men’s tennis, women’s tennis and lacrosse do not have a student-athlete returning to GW for an extra season, according to 2020-21 rosters.
Three of the six members of softball’s 2020 class are returning, including graduate student utility player Jenna Cone, graduate student utility player Jessica Linquist and graduate student utility player Faith Weber. But infielder Elena Shelepak, pitcher Kaitlin Bluff and utility player Priscilla Martinez opted not to use the extra year at GW, according to the 2021 roster.
Cone, who is going for a master’s in media and strategic communications, said returning without the teammates she’s played with her entire college career will be an “adjustment.”
But all three players said extra eligibility gives them a second chance to accomplish their goals for their careers.
Cone said the team has its eyes fixed on winning an Atlantic 10 Championship and going deep in the postseason, a goal set before the pandemic. She said the team got a “taste” of postseason play in 2019 when the Colonials were declared co-champions with Fordham but did not earn a bid to the NCAA Tournament.
“Our main goal for this year before the pandemic was to be A-10 Champions again and continue on to the postseason,” she said. “That still remains my goal to win a Championship and go in the NCAA Tournament.”