On March 8, senior sprinter Elijah Morton made Shenandoah University history when he became the first male in the school’s track and field program to qualify for the national championships. Four days later, Morton learned he’d never get the chance to compete at the NCAA Division III Indoor Championships.
The NCAA announced last Thursday that, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was canceling all winter and spring championships across Divisions I, II and III, leaving Morton and many others without the closure that should’ve come with the completion of the indoor season.
Morton, who had qualified in the 60-meter dash, would’ve competed in the preliminaries on Friday in Winston-Salem, North Carolina with a chance to advance to Saturday’s championship finals.
“I received a ton of support going to nationals and I didn’t want to stop at the first male to qualify, I wanted to get All-American and stuff like that,” Morton, who is from Culpeper, said by phone on Monday. “To have that opportunity taken away from me was pretty devastating.”
Morton described the entire experience as a “lifetime event.”
He’d arrived in North Carolina on Wednesday, and he said he soon learned that the Indoor Championships would be held without spectators. Later that day, the NBA announced it was suspending its season when one of its players tested positive for COVID-19. It was at that point, he said, that Morton started to feel like the fate of the Division III Indoor Championships was in serious jeopardy.
Official word came down from the NCAA the next afternoon that abruptly brought to a halt the winter season across all sports and eliminated national championships in all of its spring athletics. Regular season play is governed by individual schools and conferences, and Shenandoah announced last Friday that it was imposing a two-week halt to all athletic activities while the Old Dominion Athletic Conference announced an indefinite suspension to all spring competition.
“When I finally got the news that it was canceled, at first I was thinking it was just nationals only, so I was a little heartbroken but I was like there’s still outdoor, I’ll qualify, we’ll do it again,” Morton said. “And when I realized all sports had been canceled, it was really tough. It was heartbreaking. I’d rather have been with my team at that moment when it happened, because they were all down at Coastal Carolina for an outdoor meet. There was a lot of support from my coaches and my teammates, but it was definitely rough, especially being alone at the meet.”
Morton said he heard the NCAA’s announcement about an hour after he had finished running as part of his pre-meet workout. He described the mood around the Indoor Championships as an “uneasy feeling.”
“Everyone was so excited to be at nationals, so leading up to it everyone was making jokes like ‘We better hurry up and run before they cancel it,’ but no one was really taking it serious,” Morton said. “And then when it actually did happen and we realized that we weren’t gonna be competing at the national meet, there was a lot of people crying, there was a lot of people that were heartbroken.
“Especially for seniors and stuff, some people have been trying so hard to get to nationals and then to have it canceled right from under you, it was definitely a pretty sad feeling. I talked to a couple other athletes in our conference and they’re all heartbroken all-around. There’s really not much you can say. … It means a lot to everyone to compete at that level, so it was a pretty sad atmosphere.”
The NCAA announced on Friday that it would give a “blanket waiver” to all Division III student-athletes who compete in a spring sport, which grants an extra year of eligibility for those athletes.
Morton said on Monday that he would need to attend graduate school in order to complete his outdoor track and field career at Shenandoah next spring. He added that it’s his understanding that similar eligibility relief is being discussed for winter student-athletes, which means Morton could potentially compete for the Hornets’ indoor track and field team next school year as well, should he choose to return to school.
“I’ve definitely thought about it,” said Morton, who noted he’s studying information systems and technology at SU. “I’ve reached out to a couple professors and the grad school program director, just seeing where they think how good of a fit it would be for the future career I have planned, because I definitely don’t want to come back just for track. But I definitely don’t want to leave track unfinished, so if grad school is going to be beneficial for me, then there’s a pretty good chance I’ll come back.”