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Bulldogs' quest for hockey, basketball titles crushed by COVID-19 as NCAA, NCHC cancel postseason tournaments

Minnesota Duluth will not host Miami in the NCHC quarterfinals at Amsoil Arena. The Bulldogs will not get to play in the NCAA tournament. The two-time defending champs' season is over. Same for the UMD women's basketball team, which was on the eve of playing in the NCAA Division II tournament.

Little Caesars Arena.jpg
Little Caesars Arena in Detroit, Michigan, advertises tickets for sale for the 2020 Frozen Four in February. The NCAA announced Thursday, March 12 the cancellation of all Division I men's and women's 2020 basketball tournaments, as well as all remaining winter and spring NCAA championships. (Adelle Whitefoot / awhitefoot@duluthnews.com)

The two-time defending national champion Minnesota Duluth men’s hockey team saw its shot at a historic three-peat come to an end Thursday afternoon when the NCAA canceled all remaining winter and spring sports championships due to the spread of COVID-19 across the country.

The announcement by the NCAA came hours after the NCHC announced the cancellation of its 2020 postseason tournament, also due to COVID-19.

“A lot of emotions," Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin said Thursday. "You see what’s transpired. I’m not totally surprised what happened, but certainly frustrated. I feel for our players, certainly our seniors. You can’t control what you can’t control. It’s unfortunate, but that’s the way it is. It’s probably confusing for a lot of guys because there is not a lot of closure.”

The Bulldogs, who were the defending NCHC postseason champs as well, were scheduled to open the playoffs against Miami in a best-of-three NCHC quarterfinal series beginning Friday at Amsoil Arena. That series, along with every other NCHC quarterfinal series, and the Frozen Faceoff next weekend at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul are now canceled.

The same goes the Division I men’s hockey regionals March 27-29 in Loveland, Colorado; Allentown, Pennsylvania; Worcester, Massachusetts; and Albany, New York, as well as the Frozen Four April 9-11 at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit.

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During a conference call with reporters Thursday afternoon — before the NCAA had made its decision — NCHC commissioner Josh Fenton said the decision to cancel the postseason was made for the health and safety of everyone involved, from the players, coaches and staff to fans and media.

"Certainly, we're living in unprecedented times," Fenton said. "This is certainly not a light decision in any way, but ultimately the health, safety and security of our student athletes, our officials, our media, our fans, our staff members, anybody involved within games being played on our campuses or a neutral site in Xcel Energy Center was our highest priority. The decisions that were made over the course of the past 24-36 hours were focused on that priority being front and center.

“It’s unfortunate that we’ve gotten to the point in having to cancel what we believe has become a great conference tournament in the college hockey schedule every year, but the decision was made and we believe it was the right decision again for the health and safety of all those that are involved.”

The Bulldogs women’s basketball team also saw its season come to a premature end. UMD had been in Warrensburg, Missouri, since Wednesday for the NCAA Division II Central Regional tournament hosted by Central Missouri. The No. 2 seed, UMD was supposed to take on No. 7 Fort Hays State at 2:30 p.m. Friday.

Meanwhile in Birmingham, Alabama, Bulldogs sophomore runner Haleigh Reindl was supposed to take part in the women's 800-meter-run at the NCAA Division II Indoor Track and Field Championships on Friday, but that's not happening.

UMD women's basketball coach Mandy Pearson heard the devastating news about her team's season on Thursday afternoon from UMD's senior associate athletic director and former women's basketball coach Karen Stromme, who came to Pearson's hotel room Thursday to tell her, "'You better go round up the team. It's canceled.'"

“It’s devastating for our student-athletes who are just incredible people, who have done such amazing things on and off the basketball court to put themselves in the position to play in the NCAA tournament," Pearson said. "It’s really difficult for them and for everybody else in the country right now, but I think when it comes down to it, the NCAA — and professional sports and everybody in the U.S. — has to do what’s best for the safety of our country.

"It’s really difficult for those who are losing something because of it right now, an opportunity to compete for national titles. On the other side of it, you have to understand that the leadership in athletics, it’s pretty incredible, that they are putting things aside for the safety of other people. It’s tough both ways. I’m glad I didn’t have to make those decisions because it’s really difficult right now — tough times.”

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The back-to-back national champion Bulldogs men’s hockey team was set to join the women's basketball team in the NCAA tournament. UMD was considered a statistical lock for its sixth-straight NCAA tournament appearance, ranked fourth in the system used to select and seed the tourney — the Pairwise rankings.

According to projections by USCHO.com , NCAA.com and the News Tribune , the No. 1 Bulldogs would have been in Loveland, Colorado, taking on No. 4 Arizona State based on where the teams stood in the Pairwise on Thursday, with host and second-seeded Denver and No. 3 Bemidji State squaring off on the other side of the bracket.

Had the NCAA tournament gone on, Arizona State likely would not have been there as the Sun Devils announced earlier in the day they were suspending all of their athletics teams’ seasons until further notice, as did Massachusetts, which was also in line to return to the NCAA tournament after falling to UMD in last year’s national championship in Buffalo, New York.

Harvard and Yale put an end to their winter and spring sports seasons — including hockey — on Wednesday, though both needed conference tournament titles to reach the NCAA tournament.

Duke, a men's basketball powerhouse without hockey, was also among those schools who suspended their sports season Thursday prior to the NCAA announcement, which cited "ongoing decisions by other entities" as playing a role in the cancellation of postseason tournaments, in addition to the public health risks of COVID-19.

“Today, NCAA President Mark Emmert and the Board of Governors canceled the Division I men’s and women’s 2020 basketball tournaments, as well as all remaining winter and spring NCAA championships,” the NCAA statement read. “This decision is based on the evolving COVID-19 public health threat, our ability to ensure the events do not contribute to spread the pandemic, and the impracticality of hosting such events at any time during this academic year given ongoing decisions by other entities.”

UMD has yet to cancel the seasons of its five spring sports teams — baseball, softball, women's tennis and men's and women's track and field — however the NSIC did announce the suspension of all sports for each of its 16 schools.

"All NSIC contests are suspended immediately, while any non-conference competitions already travelled to are left to institutional discretion up to March 16, at which time all athletic activities must cease," read a statement from the league. "The league will continue to monitor and evaluate the situation and will make a determination on the remainder of the academic year later this month."

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UMD athletic director Josh Berlo released a statement late Thursday:

"On behalf of Bulldog Athletics, I am saddened for the great Bulldog student athletes who have had their seasons shortened, suspended and/or cancelled, some of whom were literally hours from chasing Conference and National Championships. I am also disappointed for our incredible fans that cheer on the 'Dogs year in, year out.

"The Bulldog Coaches and Staff are here to support our student athletes, campus and community. Moreover, I appreciate the leadership of our campus, University, the NCHC, WCHA and NSIC Conferences in facilitating decisions in the best interest of our student athletes, staff, campuses, communities and fans. We look forward to athletic competition being a bright spot in our daily lives again very soon. Together, Bulldog Country will get through this."

This story was updated several times March 12 with additional information gathered throughout the day. The final version was published at 8:50 p.m. March 12. The initial version was posted at noon March 12.

As a public service, we've opened this article to everyone regardless of subscription status.

Co-host of the Bulldog Insider Podcast and college hockey reporter for the Duluth News Tribune and The Rink Live covering the Minnesota Duluth men's and women's hockey programs.
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