After four years competing for the UMass Lowell indoor and outdoor track teams, which culminated last year with becoming the America East Conference runner-up in the shot put, Woburn native Jenny Lee had a chance to compete in Division 1 college softball, the other sport she competed in at Woburn High, at the college level this year.
Lee earned her Bachelor’s degree in world languages from UMass Lowell last year and then decided to continue her education as a graduate student at UML this year, to pursue a Master’s degree in education administration in high education.
Having been a captain and Liberty Division MVP for the Woburn High softball team in her senior year (2015), Lee decided to take advantage of the opportunity of a fifth-year of college eligibility, and join the UMass Lowell softball team for this season.
Although she had been a track athlete her previous four years in Lowell, Lee never fully gave up playing softball.
“I played for the Woburn Pride softball team last summer and have always enjoyed playing softball,” said Lee. “So since the chance to play for UMass Lowell softball this year was there, I felt it would be a good way to continue to play a sport I love to play. So last year I committed to join the team for this year.”
By joining UMass Lowell, which competes at the Division 1 level in American East, Lee had a chance to compete for a team that started its season in early February. The River Hawks first played five games in Houston, then later in the month five more games in Fort Myers, Florida, spring training home of the Red Sox.
“Everything was great in Houston and then Fort Myers, and everything seemed to be going well,” said Lee. “We didn’t see the Red Sox while we were in Fort Myers, but the aunt of one of my teammates went to see the Red Sox, and then came to one of our games.”
Among the teams UMass Lowell played against in Houston and Fort Myers included Fordham, Houston, Michigan State, and Harvard. Then in early March the River Hawks traveled to Clarksville, Tennessee, to play five more game against IPFW, Austin Peay, and Bradley.
Lee was used primarily as a pinch-runner in several of those games, with the expectation to play a more prominent role as an outfielder as the season went along. But it was while the team was in Clarksville that news began to circulate that the COVID-19 coronavirus was starting to spread to the United States.
After playing their final game in Clarksville on Sunday, March 8, the River Hawks had two off days. They would then travel to Nashville for a scheduled game against Belmont on Wednesday, March 11, before moving on to finish the road trip with five more games in Memphis. But by that day things had become progressively worse
“We went to Clarksville and played five games there, and then after an off-day and a practice day we went to play Belmont in Nashville on Wednesday (March 11),” said Lee. “We won that game and everything was still going well, but after that game we found out that they had suspended the NBA season, and that’s when we started getting nervous.”
By the time the team bus had left Nashville for Memphis the following morning, not only had the NBA shut down due to COVID-19 concerns, but the NHL and Major League baseball had also followed suit. Then it got real scary when several college winter and spring sports started canceling events as the day went along.
“It was about a four- to five-hour trip, and we were already nervous in mid-trip when they broke the news that they had cancelled our games in Memphis for that weekend,” said Lee. “By then we were getting really nervous, and we were constantly refreshing the news on twitter on our phones, to try and find out what was getting cancelled, and it was one thing after the next.”
CANCELLATIONS CAME QUICK
By the time the team bus arrived in Memphis not only had the games they had anticipated would play there been cancelled, but the NCAA had cancelled the Men’s Basketball tournament. In addition, several college teams and conferences were cancelling winter and spring sports in rapid succession.
“Once we got to Memphis several softball leagues like the Ivy League had already cancelled their seasons,” said Lee. “The Patriot League, which includes Boston University, had also cancelled their season, and they’re like our counterparts. We were scheduled to play them the next week, which made us even more nervous.”
That day so many college leagues and conferences were cancelling their spring seasons, that it was likely just a matter of time before the America East Conference, which UMass Lowell belongs to, would do the same. At first the conference suspended spring sports, then a short time later the death knell came.
“By the time we got to the hotel the America East Conference had postponed all of its games through April 4, and had suspended our season for re-evaluation but not cancelled the season yet,” said Lee. “But about half an hour after we got to the hotel, we got the news that they had cancelled the rest of our season. Then later the NCAA had cancelled the rest of the spring sports season.”
At first the UMass Lowell softball team, unaware of the magnitude of the COVID-19 situation at that time, was understandably shaken. Lee and her teammates felt at the time a more reasonable recourse would be for the NCAA to just suspend the spring sports season, in hopes of picking up its season at a future time.
“After two weeks we realized that even if the NCAA had suspended the season at that time, there was no chance the season was going to happen,” said Lee. “Eventually they would have cancelled the season anyway.”
For Lee and her teammates, along with all other college spring sports teams this year, having their season terminated so abruptly after it had just started was really tough.
“It was definitely heart-breaking to have our season cancelled, since we put a lot of time and effort into preparing for this season, and I felt we had a really special team this year,” said Lee. “I thought we had a good shot to win our conference, and that we had a good chance to make some noise in the NCAA tournament.”
LEE COULD RETURN IN 2021
Despite the disappointing situation there was a glimmer of hope for the future, as the NCAA did grant all spring sports athletes eligibility relief at all levels. This meant Lee and her teammates could still return to play for the team next year if they could do so.
“I know we won’t be the same, since some of my teammates may not come back,” said Lee. “One of my teammates has already committed to a doctorate program in New York next year, so she can’t possibly play now. Another of my teammates has already committed to a work program in Italy so she probably won’t be back either.”
Lee is fortunate to still have another year of graduate studies to take at UMass Lowell to complete her Master’s. So while Lee is not certain yet if she will do that next year, at least there’s the chance she will return to the diamond in 2021.
“There’s a chance that I will come back to play again,” said Lee. “I will have to re-evaluate my situation with the graduate department, and decide if it’s financially feasible to continue my studies next year, and keep open the possibility of playing softball again.
“If I have that chance I would definitely come back to play next year,” she went on. “I felt this year just got taken away from us, and this is a good example that we can’t take anything for granted. So I wouldn’t want to end my college softball career this way. So if the opportunity is still open next year I would like to come back, and help out our team in whatever way I can.”
As for the immediate future, once things return to normal enough to allow sports to be played again, Lee would like to continue to play softball. She played for the over-18 Woburn Pride softball team last summer, and if the team plays again this year she will undoubtedly play for the squad again.
“We have two tournaments in Lowell and two in Woburn already scheduled, so I am looking forward to doing that again this year,” said Lee.
Lee was also a part-time assistant coach for a youth softball team in Arlington last year, and if circumstances allow that team to play again this year she would like to continue to help coach that team again.
So while sports may be still on hold right now Lee is already planning for the future. Once her softball playing career is over, she has the aspiration to stay in one of the two sports she excels in, by eventually becoming a head coach.
“I still would like to someday be a head coach of a high school or college softball or track team,” said Lee. “I have always wanted to continue to stay in track or softball after my college playing career is over, so to head coach a softball or track team would be a good way for me to do that and help people out. I’m not sure yet which sport I will end up coaching and settle into permanently, but that’s a decision I can make once the right opportunity comes my way.”