AUBURN, Ala. – On March 11, the Auburn baseball team walked off the field at Plainsman Park following a midweek game against Wofford. The Tigers were scheduled to begin SEC play two days later at home against Texas A&M, but that game never happened. The season, like the rest of the sports world, came to an abrupt halt.
“When things started to happen coming off the field Wednesday after the ball game, quickly the challenges of leading a baseball program turned toward something different,” head coach Butch Thompson said. “Learning more about the Coronavirus started to take our full attention.”
In the days to follow, it became clear that because of COVID-19 and the uncertainty surrounding it, that midweek baseball game would be the last sporting event hosted by Auburn in the spring.
On Friday, six months later, sports returned to Auburn. The soccer team hosted Mississippi State in the first sporting event on campus since March. It might have looked a little different. There was a limited capacity in the stands. The fans that did attend were required to wear masks. Head coach Karen Hoppa‘s post-game press conference with reporters was held via Zoom.
But sports were back and with it came a sense of normalcy again.
“It felt great,” Hoppa said. “I couldn’t be more appreciative of our medical staff and our administration for making this happen. They always make it happen for us, but obviously during a pandemic, it’s even heightened – the contributions of Dr. (Michael) Goodlett and his staff, the administration’s commitment and the SEC’s commitment to allow our players to play.
“Our players were so grateful and appreciative and excited. It’s been a long time – over six months since they’ve had the opportunity to play soccer – and they were just really thrilled and excited to have that chance.”
That excitement was evident even in pre-game warm-ups. There was an extra energy, an extra bounce in the step of the players as they prepared for the match.
The last six months had been a roller coaster ride of emotions for these players. They were sent home in March where they had to train on their own for the next three months. Even after they returned to campus and began practicing, they didn’t know if they would get to play. But they kept training and knew if they were able to play, they would be ready.
“We’re so excited we get to play,” senior defender Sarah Houchin said the week leading into the match. “It’s right here, and it seems also not believable because we’ve been waiting so long for this to happen.”
The fans had been waiting a long time, too. The first 50 students were allowed in and when that number was reached – well before the game started – the crowd started to grow larger and larger on The Hill, an area of seating on the grass outside the stadium.
On the pitch, it was a spirited first half though no goals were scored. In the second half, Auburn broke through in the 56th minute when sophomore Sydney Richards received a pass from teammate Kori Locksley and blasted it past the keeper for the first goal of the season.
“You could see the emotion after Sydney scored of just the relief of getting to play soccer and scoring a goal,” Hoppa said. “The celebration there and seeing it in the girls’ faces, it was really fun.”
“It was pretty nerve-wrecking at first just because we haven’t played in a couple months, but I think everybody was overjoyed to play and that kind of overtook our game,” Richards said. “I think we started off pretty strong, and it was really nice to actually play some soccer for once against people that we don’t usually play against.”
Mississippi State responded with a goal in the 76th minute to tie it, and though both sides had chances down the stretch, it ended in a 1-1 draw.
Sure, Hoppa wished Auburn could have scored once more in the final minutes to send the fans home happy and start the season with a victory. But the word that kept coming up post-game was grateful. She was grateful her team got the opportunity to play amidst everything going on, and she’s grateful they will get another opportunity to play on Oct. 3 at LSU.
On Saturday, the Auburn football team will kick off their 2020 season at home against Kentucky. They will be followed by volleyball and men’s and women’s golf, which are all scheduled to return to competition in October.
The world is not what it was six months ago, but Auburn fans can take some comfort in knowing it’s once again a world with sports on the Plains.