How Elmhurst College's best season came to a surprising end
The best season in Elmhurst College men's basketball history ended without the harsh tone of a buzzer.
In fact the end was as much of a surprise as the season itself.
"I think one word to sum it up is surprising," Bluejays junior Nick Perry said of a 25-5 season in which Elmhurst was slated to host Pomona-Pitzer on Saturday night in a Division III NCAA Tournament Sweet Sixteen game. "We came off of last year almost .500, a little bit above .500. ... It was just really surprising. Somewhat surprising but also not surprising because we worked so hard preseason, during the season, everything. So I feel like we deserved it."
This year's Elmhurst team was the first to win the CCIW Tournament, the first to win two NCAA Tournament games, and it set a school record for victories in a season.
"All in all it was a great season," Elmhurst coach John Baines said. "I felt like our team was playing really, really well at the end of the year, so being cut short really stung us because we'd won our two NCAA Tournament games by 20-plus points, and so we thought we had it rolling."
Then came word Thursday that the NCAA was canceling all tournament games due to the COVID-19 pandemic effective immediately.
"Very surprising. Very surprising," said Perry, a Hinsdale South graduate. "I thought they would either finish it with no fans before they just canceled everything. So that was pretty surprising."
The team meeting to talk about the end of the season was emotional.
"You have a lot of guys crying and there's no manual for that as a coach," Baines added, "especially with your seniors that are looking at you. It came so fast."
In a matter of days the games went from being played as normal, to being played without fans, to not being played at all. Just like that the season was over.
"It just escalated into something we didn't really expect," Perry said.
"We were on a bus Saturday night coming back from Ohio after a big win and we knew we were going to host and that exhilaration of that -- hosting a Sweet Sixteen game. And then four or five days later it's over and that really hit a lot of our guys hard," Baines added.
The Bluejays had what every team aspired to. Not just success on the court but a bond off it as well. They had become a team in the best sense of the word.
"The feeling in the locker room, the trust we had between each other, it was unbreakable," Perry said. "We felt we were going to win everything no matter who came in front of us."
That made it even harder to understand the season had ended in the most unconventional of ways.
"The finality of all of it, it did hit them," Baines said. "And I have to tell you, it hit me. I had an idea of what I wanted to say to them and then you go in and you look at a bunch of guys crying, it changes what you're saying a lot. It upset me to see them be so upset."