Whether you're a University of Tennessee football player running through the "T" for a final time at Neyland Stadium, a University of Kentucky basketball player standing before a packed crowd at Rupp Arena as eyes water over the singing of "My Old Kentucky Home," or Georgia Tech senior softball player Crosby Huckabay anticipating her special moment in the spotlight at the Yellow Jackets' Mewborn Field, that last home game is quite often the emotional highlight of any student-athlete's college career.
At least Huckabay figured it would be until the coronavirus pandemic appeared to cut short her final season at Tech on March 12.
So instead of enjoying Tech's tradition of honoring its seniors and their parents before the home finale in Atlanta, complete with being presented her No. 19 jersey in a frame, Huckabay left school on that fateful Thursday knowing her team's season was suspended and fearing it might be canceled.
"We were scheduled to play Clemson that weekend," she said of the Yellow Jackets' Atlantic Coast Conference foe. "We were supposed to go into a meeting with the coaches at 2 p.m. to watch film. Then all these rumors started. We learned over Twitter that the SEC was suspending all spring sports until further notice. Right then, we said, 'We're next.'"
Sure enough, third-year Tech coach Aileen Morales, herself a former Jackets star, soon told her team: "School's suspended for two weeks. Go home."
Not long after that, the NCAA canceled all spring sports for the year. Barring a miracle, the 22-year-old Huckabay's playing career was over.
"I was in pieces," she said. "I was crying every day."
Perhaps more than any other team sport, softball is almost always a family affair. Crosby's parents, Caldwell and Shelley, had attended most every game she played through an all-state career at Baylor School — during which the Lady Red Raiders won four TSSAA Division II-AA state titles in five years — then four years at Tech, where she'd settled into the outfield while leading the Jackets in RBIs her junior year and again this season.
Wrote Caldwell in an email: "Shelley and I were crushed when the season was suspended and subsequently cancelled. We have always gone to every game that she plays, whether home or away, and it all just couldn't end on a Wednesday at Mercer. Softball is what we do. We loved it. All of a sudden, that was over — forever. We just weren't prepared for that."
To return to that game against Mercer on March 11 in Macon, a medical condition had prevented Shelley from attending. Live streaming of the game over Tech's website — plus Crosby's oldest brother Caldwell Jr., who lives in South Korea, rising at 2 a.m. his time to follow the game and put together a family group text — let everyone know she'd hit a home run in what turned out to be her final at-bat of the season.
Still, as her father noted, "(Her career) just couldn't end on that Wednesday."
Thankfully, the NCAA, not always the most compassionate or understanding of organizations, decided on March 30 to grant all spring sport athletes whose seasons were canceled due to the pandemic an extra year of competition by allowing for expanded rosters in 2021, though financial aid would be determined by individual institutions.
It seemed like a dream come true — Huckabay said her parents were immediately "over the moon" with joy — but she briefly hesitated to embrace the opportunity.
"Softball is really hard in the fall," she said. "There's nothing but practice, weights at 6 a.m. Did I really want to go through that again?"
Thirty minutes later, her feelings were completely different: "I thought, 'I'll regret this until the day I die if I don't do this one more time.'"
Even then, it was more complicated than merely wanting to return. In so-called nonrevenue sports such as softball, budgets are limited and a single scholarship is often divided among two or three players.
Along with Huckabay, senior pitchers Brooke Barfield and Morgan Bruce also elected to return. For Coach Morales, this meant juggling an already tight budget, as well as informing incoming freshmen that earning playing time at certain positions just got more difficult.
"It was a mixed bag," Huckabay said. "I think she was excited we had this opportunity but worried, too, because money is an issue. Finding three extra (partial) scholarships isn't easy."
In the end, Huckabay said she "was handled very fairly," adding "I'm lucky that, financially, my family's blessed enough for me to do this."
"It's our obligation (as seniors) to share our knowledge," she said. "I think it's going to make softball better. The freshmen are going to push me, and we're going to be able to help guide them."
There was also the important realization before the extra year was granted that however tough this was on a young woman who first began playing softball at the age of 3, far bigger problems have arisen throughout the world.
"We all had to put our loss into perspective," Caldwell wrote. "Although Crosby was losing her senior year, many in the country were losing family members and livelihoods. So many people had lost so much more than us."
But for his daughter — who will set aside the business degree she earned to be the batting instructor for the Tennessee Fury Platinum organization until school resumes — it's something she's again found that promises to make her second senior year far better than the first.
"This has all helped me realize how much I love this game," she said. "This is my everything."
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