WINCHESTER — A white passenger van pulled up to the entrance of the Umpqua Community College athletic complex. A door opened, and a single empty water bottle fell to the pavement.
It was symbolic of the end of the UCC men’s basketball season: the bottle landed with a resounding thud.
The Riverhawks headed to Oregon City with a firm belief they would come home with not only the greatest single season in the history of the men’s basketball program, but with the hardware to prove it.
Instead, the 2019-20 season will be a reminder of “what if?”
“Somber,” sophomore Spencer Campbell said of the 3-plus-hour ride home after the Riverhawks were informed that the Northwest Athletic Conference — after meetings with college presidents and health officials concerning the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak — decided to pull the plug on the 2020 championship basketball tournaments.
“That’s probably the worst bus ride I’ve ever been on,” sophomore Cameron Benzel said of the trip back home. “Your heart just kind of sunk. The fact that we drove up there with high expectations of bringing something back and got home the same way we left.”
The men’s championship tournament, originally scheduled for Everett Community College in Washington last weekend, was called off before many men’s teams had traveled to the venue.
The NWAC scrambled to relocate the men’s event to Clackamas Community College. Just two games into Thursday’s competition, as every major professional sports league and the NCAA were either suspending or cancelling events, the decision was made that the show could not go on.
“This was a 0.1% chance it ends like this,” Benzel said. “With this group of guys, the way it ended last year (with the snow event and a first-round tournament loss). Just the fact of what we battled through this year, it’s (expletive).
“The women had a perfect season going, and for the way it ended for them, it sucks.”
The Riverhawks, who entered the tournament with a 25-4 overall record finished runner-up to Clackamas in the NWAC’s South Region despite beating the Cougars twice during the season. They were considered one of four or five favorites to walk away as champions on Sunday.
The best record in program history was posted by former coach Rod Snook’s 1987-88 team, which won the South with a 26-5 record and placed fourth in the NWAC tournament.
An opening-round win over Treasure Valley C.C. of Ontario would have secured at least a share of the best season by the UCC men.
“We’ve been saying for a long time, ‘Make history,’” UCC coach Daniel Leeworthy said. “This was the year that men’s basketball was going to win a championship. For it to end like this is disappointing.
“I’m mainly disappointed for our guys who worked hard all year long, sacrificed for the team, sacrified the individual. These are all extremely high-character guys.”
It was the second consecutive season that this particular group of sophomores had had their season end under strange circumstances. Last winter, it was the so-called “Snowmageddon” which shut down most of Western Oregon, causing teams to play upwards of three games in four days, which culminated in Umpqua’s first-round NWAC tournament loss to Spokane.
This year, the ‘Hawks never set foot on the championship floor.
“This one stings because you just can’t prepare for it,” sophomore point guard Brock Gilbert said. “It was out of our control. We couldn’t have done anything about it.
“We all had full confidence that we could go up there and win every game. We truly thought we would come back with the championship trophy.”
While it’s unknown what the future holds for Umpqua’s five sophomores — Benzel, Gilbert, Campbell, Kolten Mortensen and Isaac Lungren — the events of the past couple of weeks have hammered home a lesson all of us too often take for granted.
“You just have to make the most out of every moment, right?” Mortensen said. “You never know what’s going to happen in the future. You just have to do what you can while you have it with you.”
Added Gilbert: “I think all of us can agree that we took this year for granted with this team, and it’s over just like that.”