PROVO — Selfless, resilient and driven are the core values BYU softball coach Gordon Eakin works to promote within his team. Values which took on a different and intensified meaning during a long bus ride to the Atlanta airport back on March 12.
Like most, March 12 feels much more distant than the actual date to BYU senior softball star Rylee Jensen-McFarland, considering all that’s taken place since the coronavirus pandemic outbreak.
The BYU softball team was set to participate in its final preseason tournament of the season, held at the University of Alabama, before returning home for a first chance to actually play a home game.
“We were feeling real good about how everything was coming together for us, as a team, and then it just hit us so fast,” Jensen-McFarland said. “We knew things were happening real fast, but then to have it completely called off — it was really tough.”
BYU typically takes a while to begin home play during the softball season, due to Provo’s typically frigid conditions, and had accumulated a 14-9 record while playing its usual stacked preseason schedule.
Eakin describes a young team with just two seniors on the roster, which had a lot of things going in the right direction.
“I learned through the early part of our schedule that we were going to be very good,” Eakin said. “It’s a team that has, and still will have an extremely high upside. We were able to compete with the best teams in the country well, and even beat several of them. I truly believe we were on our way to becoming a special team.”
Heading into the tournament, anxiety was high, with Eakin and his players knowing full well of all the sudden cancellations going on nationally.
“We got word the day before we were set to play our first game against Alabama that there would be no games played that weekend,” Eakin said. “Furthermore, we were encouraged to get out of there and back home, as soon as possible.”
The University of Alabama is about a three-hour drive to the Atlanta airport, with tearful players boarding the bus after Eakin held a brief team meeting to address the extraordinary circumstances.
“It was dead silent the entire bus ride there,” Jensen-McFarland said. “No one knew what was going on, and it was really tough for me, as a senior, along with Emilee (Erickson), who is the only other senior, because we had put so much into what was going to be our final season.”
As for the team meeting, Jensen-McFarland noted her coach wasn’t able to look at her or Erickson because, “He would just start crying, if he did. I’ve come to know coach well, and definitely know how much he cares for us. We were all already in tears, and he wanted to stay strong, and that’s just the kind of guy he is.”
Softball is effectively over for 2020, with team activities coming to a close, although Eakin has remained diligent in keeping up on each of his player’s lives as best he can, and help them through.
Unable to work out in Provo, Jensen-McFarland is currently back home in Idaho, which did have workout facilities open briefly, before shutting down like most other states.
Accompanying Jensen-McFarland every step of the way is Darius MacFarland, who is a sophomore defensive lineman on the football team.
“I don’t know how I would have gone through all this without him,” Jensen-McFarland said. “It was tough through the early part of the year, with me being away so much playing softball, but I’m so grateful he’s here for me now, along with my family.”
Jensen-McFarland is aware of the option promoted by the NCAA to grant seniors participating in spring sports another year of eligibility in light of the season cancellations. Returning for another year is certainly an option she’ll explore, and will have good reason to stay one more year, considering Darius McFarland has three full years of eligibility remaining.
“It’s definitely a possibility because I have one to two semesters left at school, so it would work great for me, school-wise,” Jensen-McFarland said. “And then part of me just can’t take having to end it like it did this year. I have unfinished work. And then, obviously, Darius is just a redshirt sophomore, so I’m going to be around here, anyway. Coming back is definitely something I’ll consider, if given the opportunity.”
With the season cut short, Eakin is still focused on the core values he promotes among his players and believes overall all of them will be stronger for it.
“We try and live to be selfless, resilient and driven,” Eakin said. “We work on those things all the time, and not just with softball. Now, we’re getting a real hard look at the necessity of being selfless, but especially resilient. If you’re not resilient through this, then it’s going to be a long and painful road.”
Eakin now hopes his players have taken each of his promoted values to heart in order to now focus on things much more important than softball.
“We need to serve our community, as best we can and continue to drive toward a bright future,” Eakin said. “Will this experience help us as a softball team? I sure hope so, but much more important is my hope that every single one of my players becomes more selfless, resilient and driven in their every day lives, because of it.”