Mary Murray: COVID-19 Cancellations, The Day That Still Haunts Me

The Hidden Opponent intern Mary Murray shares the heartbreak of having her senior season cancelled due to COVID-19. After slipping into a bout of mental health struggles, Mary has found ways to accept her new life after sport as she pursues coaching, her master’s degree, and interning with our organization.

Let me take you through a play by play of one of the worst days of my life: March 12, 2020.

I remember it vividly; those memories still haunt me to this day, and I think they will for a while. I woke up early in the morning and got ready for my 8:30am lecture, but this time was different. Due to the threat of the coronavirus pandemic, our school had made the decision to move classes online for the next two weeks, so I was dressed in my business casual attire, sitting at my desk in my off-campus apartment, trying to not let my mind wander about what might happen the rest of the day. It was a two hour lecture, and during the lecture, I got a text from my coach in our team group message. It said we had a mandatory team meeting in the locker room at 11:45am to go over the bat list and the game plan for our doubleheader, our home opener, later that afternoon.

My mind raced. The bat list seemed like a reasonable thing since we had to make a new one every year, but the game plan? The only people who worried about game plans were the pitchers and catchers, and we had our pitching charts from playing this school last year. We already knew who to look out for and how to throw them. I knew we weren’t having a game plan meeting, and my heart raced as my anxiety thought through every possible scenario. Were they cancelling our games today? Were they suspending our spring break training trip to Florida? What was going on? After class finished, I gathered everything I’d need for my games.

I entered the locker room, and our assistant coach did her best at trying to break the tense atmosphere. Our head coach entered soon after, followed by our athletic trainer. She sat us all down and broke the news that our school had suspended our training trip to Florida. I looked around at my fellow seniors and saw tears forming as we realized we wouldn’t get to have our last traveling trip with our team. No shenanigans together, no van rides full of singing and dancing, no days at the parks, no senior Hibachi dinner. The seven of us started crying, and I couldn’t look at my coaches, athletic trainer, or teammates in fear of crying more. Then came more news: our athletic conference had decided that, after today, they were suspending competition for two weeks. While we were shocked and tried to wrap our heads around the news, we still had games to play that night. We would be playing these last games before the conference suspension. After letting our emotions out, we rallied together as a team. Two week suspension? Okay, we would stay ready for when we were allowed to play again. We didn’t lose hope yet. We couldn’t go there.

We began game one. I started at third base, and nothing was different. I was talking to my pitcher in the circle, and I made a couple of nice plays on defense. I don’t remember how I did offensively, but I remember being fired up after we lost game one. It’s a huge part of our team culture that we don’t get swept on our home field. It was something that I took personally. As I went into the bullpen to warm up to pitch game two, my pitching coach came out with me. As usual, she tweaked some things for me and we talked about game strategy. Surprisingly, I felt really good. Really loose. Like I had nothing to lose.

Suddenly, I had everything to lose. I saw our athletic director come up to the field and grab our head coach. As we all circled in front of the dugout, I saw two of my classmates crying. They said they heard that our season was over, that the NCAA made the decision to suspend spring championships. I refused to believe it, I couldn’t let my mind go there. Our pitching coach grounded us again, but I could tell she knew something that we didn’t. Our head coach returned to us, and she read out the lineup. All of the seniors were starting. That confirmed it for us. As the tears started to form, I’ll never forget the break in Coach’s voice when she said, “I love you guys, endlessly.”

Since my junior year, she had made sure to tell us she loved us before every game. The only game that she forgot was our first game in program history in the NCAA Tournament. We lost that game 1-0, though we were able to climb our way back to the Regional Final. But then, the Regional Final game got rained out for two consecutive days, so the team we had lost to was sent to the next round. We had no control as we watched our historic postseason run abruptly end. I was devastated then, but that came nowhere close to describing what I felt on March 12, 2020.

I took a moment to gather myself (or so I thought), and as I ran out to the circle, my pitching song began to play – Home by Machine Gun Kelly. I had chosen that song my sophomore year. I had played through a hip injury that required surgery, and the lyrics to that song reminded me why I played. I kept it through my junior year, reminding me about the adversity I had overcome from surgery and why I played the game. As the lyrics started, I couldn’t keep it together.

If you haven’t heard it, listen to it. It starts, “Home, a place where I can go, to take this off my shoulders, someone take me home…” I looked over at my best friend, who was starting at third base, and I felt the tears begin to surface as I struggled to breathe. To this day, I cry every time I hear that song. I threw my warmup pitches, eyes clouded with tears. How was I supposed to approach this game mentally, knowing that my senior year home opener had just become my last game? Words can’t describe how my heart broke knowing that I’d never get a senior day celebration. I’d never get the chance to pursue my ultimate athletic goal of becoming an All-American. I’d never be able to have the chance to defend the championship ring we’d won the year prior, and I’d never have the chance to help the program make more history and go deeper in the NCAA Tournament. The infield came into the circle to start the game and the girls at first, second, and third base were all seniors. I could see they were barely holding in the tears. I had to try and keep it together. We took a group breath, tried to calm down, and began the game.

Pitching through this game was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to endure on the field mentally. For the first time in my life, I didn’t care about winning. I cared about savoring this last game on the field with my teammates. I ended the game tying a career-high 10 strikeouts in one game, but that was the last thing on my mind. I would be lying if I said it didn’t wander to the lowest of lows, knowing this was my last game. We ended up losing the game by a couple of runs. I was one of the last ones at bat for my team. I just wanted to light a spark and give us a fighting chance. I will never forget the moment I watched an inside screwball go past me. I froze on my pitch. I struck out. The tears began to spill as I looked up at my coach at third before I went back to the dugout. She wasn’t angry… I could see the emotion in her face, too. My last collegiate at-bat, I struck out looking. Why did it have to end like that?

The game ended, and the post-game meeting snapped my heart in two. Coach couldn’t even muster up the words. We all just cried together. When she was able to start talking, the rest of us just kept crying. I was clinging on to another senior, and we were hugging for dear life, holding each other up. It was too much. It couldn’t end this way. We had so much left to give to that program, to each other. We were one of Coach’s first recruiting classes, and we had helped change the culture of the program. In her words, we deserved so much better.

I wasn’t ready for it to be over. I had been looking forward to my senior day for years. I had just missed out on being an All-American my junior year, and I saw senior year as my chance to do finally make it. After the toughest huddle of my life, I hugged my coaches and my teammates hard.

Another part of my walk out song sums up how I felt: “Now tell me, how did all my dreams turn into nightmares? How did I lose it when I was right there? Now I’m so far that it feels like it’s all gone to pieces, tell me why the world never fights fair…” I spent almost an hour up at the field after our huddle. I sat at third base for a while, and I went out into the pitcher’s circle. I squatted on the rubber, looking out at center field. That view was where I found my peace and my solace, and that view had kept me grounded for so many years. Now it was my turn to break down there.

I went back to my apartment and cried myself to sleep that night. I was in denial. Little did I know how seriously this experience would impact my mental health for the next months.

When I returned home from school, I struggled to get out of bed. I had no motivation to work out. I barely left my room. I saw no reason to finish my assignments. I wanted to give up. My anxiety-driven self, of course, didn’t allow that to happen. On what was supposed to be my senior day, I didn’t leave my bed or my room. I bawled my eyes out. Everything I had worked so hard for was gone, and it wasn’t fair. I had dealt with depression and anxiety throughout high school, but after learning more about myself during two semesters abroad in Australia and England, I had been in a good space mentally –until now.

I told myself I needed to get back on the field. I began the transfer process, looking for somewhere to play my fifth year while getting my master’s degree. I couldn’t stay at my undergrad university to play, since they didn’t have my desired master’s program. After going through the stress of the transfer portal and uprooting my plans for grad school, I decided to take my fifth year at another Division III school in New Jersey. 

Shortly after graduation, I learned that The Hidden Opponent was in search of interns. I absolutely loved the mission of the organization, and as someone who struggled with mental health as a student-athlete, I was eager to get involved. Little did I know that this internship would truly change my life for the better. After working with THO and meeting the leadership team and the other interns, I could tell that something special was going on in this organization.

It took me until very recently to realize that I needed to ask for help, and that I wasn’t okay mentally. While I gained the courage to help advocate for and support those around the THO community, I didn’t have the courage to ask for help myself. I felt like my mental health struggles were something I’d already gone through and beaten. I felt like I couldn’t be going through that depression and anxiety again. Unknown to them, the THO leadership team helped me admit to myself that I was not okay, and that I need help.

As I start making my way back into counseling, I know I have immense support from the THO community. It means the absolute world to me. This community has allowed me to help myself, as well as others.

As the summer went on, I felt extreme guilt, depression, and anxiety. In a moment of objectivity, I knew that I had always struggled with my identity outside of athletics. I resisted the idea of the end of my college career and the hanging up of my cleats. But, I also knew that from a mental health perspective, I couldn’t go through this again. I made the difficult decision to withdraw from my original transfer school and forfeit taking my fifth year of eligibility. I enrolled in Johns Hopkins University and am currently pursuing my master’s degree, while coaching softball at both the club and collegiate levels.

I still struggle with reconciling that day in March. It still hurts. I still cry, and I probably will for a while. I’ve defined myself by my performance on the field for so long, but I’ve realized that I need to love me for me, not for what I’ve done on the field. If I could get back on the field and play one more season for my undergrad team, I would do it in a heartbeat. It breaks my heart to know that won’t happen, but I can tell that this process, no matter how painful it is, was needed for me.

To all the student-athletes struggling right now through this pandemic: know that your performance or accomplishments in your sport do not define you. Also know that it’s okay not be okay right now. It isn’t just a sport to us, it’s our life. It’s hard to lose something you’ve worked so hard for all of these years. It’s hard to cope. Feel what you need to feel. Lean on your support system. Ask for help when you need it. Don’t let anyone else tell you how to feel. 

I know for me, March 12th will always be a difficult day to swallow. While I can’t get my senior year back, I will always treasure the friendships and relationships I built during my time on and off the field. The memories I made during my college softball career will stick with me forever. I truly feel like part of a family, and I know that I’ve found my people for life. I have some incredible coaches and mentors who have impacted me far more than I could have ever imagined in life.

A pandemic can take away my senior season, but it can’t take away those people and those memories. And I’ll cling to those for rest of my life.