Across the NCAA, seniors were left asking “What if?” in March when the coronavirus pandemic canceled the remaining winter and spring sporting events. Here are the stories that show the sudden, complicated, controversial and emotional ending athletes have been coming to grips with over the past few weeks.
If you love watching Stephen Curry weave in and out of the sequoias, launching shots from angles that only he sees, you will love watching Michael Sowers play lacrosse. As a 5-foot-9, 175-pound attackman, Sowers isn’t going to muscle his way to an easy goal. But what made Sowers a prolific scoring machine for three-plus seasons at Princeton can’t be measured with a yardstick and a scale. He is quick of foot and quicker of eye. Sowers sees the game before his defenders do, even when they are in some wackadoodle defense drawn up to slow him down.
In five games this season, Sowers averaged 9.4 points per game (16 goals, 31 assists), two points higher than any Division I player since 2011. Another way of putting it: When Sowers led the nation in scoring as a sophomore in 2018, he averaged 6.38 points per game.
Princeton raced to a 5-0 start and a No. 3 ranking, Sowers looked like a favorite for the Tewaaraton Award — the lacrosse Heisman — and then, poof, gone.
“The thing is, there wasn’t anybody to be mad at,” Sowers said.
We sports fans are singular in our unending vacuum focus on the successes not achieved — the final fours not reached, the One Unshining Moment, the Tewaaraton not won. It is pointless to compare the agonies in intercollegiate athletics this spring. Everyone is hurting.
But Sowers and his Princeton teammates looked prepared to satisfy a lot of pent-up demand among the orange and black. From 1992 through 2001, Princeton won six national championships. The Tigers haven’t won one since. In fact, they haven’t made the NCAAs since 2012.
If Princeton ends the drought in 2021, it will do so without Sowers. The Ivy League schools made it clear they would not extend the NCAA’s largesse of a fifth year of eligibility to their seniors. One afternoon last month, still in disbelief, Sowers put his name into the NCAA transfer portal. The NCAA cleared him at 4:05. He received a recruiting phone call at 4:07.
“I always told myself there’s no way that I would play for another school after putting so much into the Princeton program,” Sowers said. “Then to have to directly compete against them, I didn’t see me being interested in that. Now I think that the opportunity to further my education is something that’s very appealing to me.
“And also [to] continue to compete for a national championship. Going into college, that was one of my main goals: playing in playoff games, playing in a national championship and a semifinal. I’ve only played in one game in May, and that was on May 3, a conference tournament game. This just presents an opportunity to pursue both those things: the academic piece and the athletic piece.”
Sowers will get his Princeton diploma in the mail. He’ll wait for the green light to head south and — when the Lord closes a door, he opens a window — fulfill a childhood dream.
Sowers plans to play his mulligan of a senior season at Duke (he is awaiting acceptance into the Fuqua School of Business). Sowers and his best friends in the world spent four years trying to overtake Yale in the Ivy League. Not only is Sowers not going to play for Princeton again, he’s going to wear Yale’s colors.
“Some guys have reached out and said, ‘It’s going to be so weird to see you in another uniform,'” Sowers said. “At the same time, there are a lot of weird things going on right now. There’s a lot of things that aren’t normal. Parallel to what’s going on in the world, everybody is trying to make the best out of the situation that they’re given.”
Duke is the Duke basketball of lacrosse. Coach John Danowski has won three national championships and reached 10 final fours. Assistant coaches Matt Danowski and Ned Crotty both won Tewaaratons playing attack for the Blue Devils.
“To have them dissect my game and find things I can work on is really attractive to me,” Sowers said.
The lacrosse community is a small world. Duke junior attack Joe Robertson is the brother of Sowers’ Princeton roommate/teammate, Phil. Joe Robertson and Sowers played age-group lacrosse together and remain close friends.
When Sowers played at Upper Dublin High in Fort Washington, Pennsylvania, Duke “was a school I was interested in,” he said. “They didn’t really recruit me. I was undersized. I was a little underrecruited. I wanted to go play in the ACC. It didn’t work out. Princeton was the best experience of my life.”
Sowers played football at Upper Dublin as well as lacrosse. He started high school at 5-foot-5, maybe 130 pounds, and he grew late. As much as he loved football, Sowers understood that a 5-foot-9, 175-pound attackman lasts longer than a 5-foot-9, 175-pound wide receiver.
“It’s such a great sport,” Sowers said. “Your success is determined by how much time you put in with the stick. It’s similar to basketball: how well you can handle the ball, how well you can shoot the ball, minus the size. At the end of the day, in lacrosse, you can be the fastest in the world, but if you don’t understand the game, you don’t understand defenses and [aren’t] able to manipulate people not only with your stick but with your mind, it’s going to be hard. From an early age, I was able to develop that.”
By the end of his junior season at Princeton, Sowers already had become the Tigers’ all-time leading scorer with 302 points. Coach Matt Madalon raved about Sowers’ understanding of angles. One viewing of Sowers’ YouTube highlights illustrates why Madalon is so geeked.
From a standing start, Sowers can whip out a head feint or a hip shimmy that will break a defender’s ankles. He makes shots from spots that would defy geometry. More often, he pulls a defense more out of shape than a cheap sweater, then flicks the ball to a teammate so quickly that you have to rewind and watch again to fully comprehend the play.
“Even if you’re small,” Madalon said, “the way he’s attacking, at his position, a lot of it is angle of attack, leverage, his ability to lean in on defenders in the right spots. He’s just a really smart player, and he uses all of that, and uses athleticism. He’s just really thoughtful about his process. He understands what works. He understands where defensemen struggle, so he knows how to attack them.”
In Sowers’ first three seasons, Princeton defined mediocrity, going a cumulative 24-20, 9-9 in the Ivy League. This season began differently. Princeton led the nation in scoring and, most likely, impromptu team meals. Olives, a Mediterranean spot in town, became the unofficial training table at lunch, not to mention the caterer for team dinners at Sowers’ apartment. Those meals cemented the bonds that Sowers, sheltering in suburban Philly, misses the most.
“The locker room will never be the same. We will never have the same 45 guys in the locker room that we did this year,” Sowers said. “To me, that’s tough. We had top to bottom such a unique buy-in, and such a bond among the group. I don’t know if that comes around every single year. For me, that’s one thing that’s tough. The thing I’m going to miss the most is just having all those guys in the locker room.”
In what felt like a millisecond, Sowers went from 60 to zero. The typical day of a Division I athlete goes something like this: breakfast-lift-class-study-lunch-rehab-drills-film-practice-dinner-decompress-bed. Sowers left home before 8 a.m. and got home after 8 p.m.
And then one day he awoke in his childhood bedroom, his attention during online classes drifting away from professors flummoxed by technology and toward his old Xbox 360. There might have been a class or two when Sowers muted his laptop and fired up NCAA Football 14 — the one with Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson on the cover.
“There’s always this feeling,” Sowers said, “like, ‘Oh, I should be doing something,’ ‘I have to go to this class,’ or, ‘I have to talk to this person,’ or, ‘I have this assignment.’ It’s so weird to just be home and really have nothing like that. And nothing pressing. It’s just a really weird feeling.”
Sowers finished his classes as well as his senior thesis, mandatory for all Princeton undergrads. Sowers, a history major, wrote on Anglo-American relations during World War II, specifically how Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, who led the war in Europe, dealt with British Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, whose self-regard knew no bounds. Eisenhower gave the generals executing the war in Europe great latitude. He built consensus without micromanaging in order to advance the best interest of the Allies.
Sowers, the son of a high school coach, the lifelong denizen of a locker room, is fond of Eisenhower and his methods. That knowledge will come in handy next season, when he must learn a foreign system and build a bridge to new teammates.
“He was under so much pressure,” Sowers said of Eisenhower, “and to be able to handle things the way he did as a statesman was unbelievably impressive.”
For all that Sowers misses about the Senior Season That Never Was, he understands the solace in numbers, knowing that this unimaginable outcome did not happen just to him. Everyone across America is in the same boat, from LeBron James to Katie Ledecky, Mike Trout to Joe Fan.
Those of us who sit in the stands and in front of the television might take comfort that the games will return someday. For Sowers, and college athletes like him, the games will return but the teams are lost. That is the worst consequence of the season not played.