NCAA cancels local college athletes’ championship run

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Whitman College basketball senior Lily Gustafson screens for senior Mady Burdett as she shoots a 3-pointer against Wartburg College in the second round of the DIII NCAA tournament in Waverly, Iowa on March 7, 2020. The Shorewood and Edmonds-Woodway alumni led Whitman to an upset against Wartburg to advance to the Sweet 16 before their season’s abrupt end due to COVID-19. (Photo courtesy of Mady Burdett)

By Jasmine Pollard

When it comes to sports, timing is everything.

On March 12, the NCAA announced the cancellation of March Madness alongside all winter and spring sports seasons for college athletes. The decision was based on proactive safety measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, which has surpassed one million cases and 67,000 deaths.

For Shoreline native Lily Gustafson and Edmonds native Mady Burdett the decision meant the duo had played the last game of their careers unknowingly.

Five days prior, trailing 61-62 with 16 seconds left, Burdett sank two free throws to give her No.10 ranked Whitman women’s basketball team a 63-62 lead against No. 5 ranked Wartburg College.

With eight seconds remaining, Gustafson blocked what should have been Wartburg’s game-winning layup.

With a 67-63 upset, Whitman advanced to the Sweet 16 and were scheduled to play for a spot in the Elite Eight on March 13.

On March 11, the NCAA announced teams would have to play without fans due to COVID-19.

On March 12, less than 24 hours before tipoff, Whitman learned the tournament was cancelled while at practice 3,000 miles away.

“There was a lot of frustration because we were like, ‘we can play, nothing bad is going to happen in our little isolated world in Maine and with crowd limitations,’” head coach Michelle Ferenz said. 
“But as we’ve seen in the last few weeks, you can’t really tell those things you don’t know.”

Over the five-day span between their last game and the announcement, the new cases of COVID-19 by day rose from 64 to 414. A month later, the number of new cases per day was 29,145.

For Gustafson and Burdett, the news meant accepting the bittersweet culmination of over a decade of years playing together.

Growing up less than 20 minutes away from each other, they became teammates in the third grade for club basketball.

During middle and high school Gustafson played for Einstein then Shorewood. Burdett played for Meadowdale then Edmonds-Woodway, making them opponents every winter season. Each year in the spring and summer they reunited on their Edmonds Sports Academy AAU team.

When the time for college decisions came, they decided to stay together.

“We gravitate towards each other and to have the experience to play together for 13 years is not something most best friends get,” Burdett said. “Knowing that someone is always going to be there and vice versa is special and goes beyond basketball.”

Burdett and Gustafson are distinctly different players who complement each other well.

Burdett is a 5-foot-7 point guard who is a goofball off the court and a sharpshooter on it.

“She’s the best shooter in the history of our program and one of the best shooters in the history of the conference,” Ferenz said. “She loves the moment, practices for it, and lives for the game.”

In contrast, 6-foot Gustafson is an observer and thinker.

“Lily doesn’t need glamor shots or headlines,” Ferenz said. “Against Wartburg she was guarding a first-team, all-conference player but wasn’t going to back down. When we needed a big play, she made it ... and that’s the epitome of who she is.”

In their four years, the team’s record was 94-20 but they always felt they had unfinished business.

Their freshman year they made it to the Elite Eight.

Their sophomore year they were eliminated in the first round of the tournament.

Their junior year they lost their conference championship and did not receive a bid.

Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, this year they won the regular season championship.

Then they won the first round of the NCAA DIII tournament 86-83 in overtime and second round in a 67-63 upset without senior Makana Stone who averaged 15 points per game before she suffered a concussion.

“Mentally, physically, emotionally our team was clicking on all cylinders before the decision,” Ferenz said. 
“As a coach you're not going to always have championship teams or win a title but these seniors were determined. Their only goal left unchecked was to get to the Final Four but I hope they understand they did everything they could.”

At the start of the season the team created a poster and wrote down one word that reminded them of why they play.

Gustafson chose the word “gratitude” and every day she walked in the locker room she was reminded to enjoy the process and make the most of the moment.

Despite COVID-19 leaving her and Burdett’s unfinished business just that, Gustafson hopes this experience will give younger players a new outlook on how nothing is guaranteed.

“You have four years playing basketball with each other and I hope this puts it into perspective,” Gustafson said. “Even through hard practice or conditioning, realize how special it is and how lucky you are to play together ... because you won’t get another chance.”


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