CHAMPAIGN — Illinois women’s golf coach Renee Slone and her staff spent the better part of last week assisting the team in returning home after the season was canceled and campus cleared in response to the global health threat of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Some of that was straightforward. Sophomores Sarah Hauenstein and Reena Sulkar are Illinois natives. Two others, senior Tristyn Nowlin (Kentucky) and sophomore Katie Hallinan (Ohio), are from the Midwest. The Illini’s two Californians — junior Ali Morallos and sophomore Crystal Wang — had further to go.
The real challenges, though, came in trying to get freshman Siyan Chen and sophomore Kornkamol Sukaree home. After determining if that was even the best course of action for the pair of international athletes who call Hangzhou, China, and Bangkok home, respectively.
“That’s a little bit more challenging than grabbing your bag, hopping in the car and driving home,” Slone said. “We’ve had numerous changes to plans. Of course, they wanted to head home, but is that the safest thing to do right now?”
Several issues had to be addressed before Chen and Sukaree left Champaign. Flights had to be booked and then rebooked after the original was canceled. Slone said her staff also had to look into how Chen and Sukaree’s F-1 student visas impacted their travel. They also had to pack up all of their belongings, one in an apartment, the other in a dorm, with their return to Champaign undetermined at this point.
“Just making sure we could assist our team members in any way that we could,” Slone said was her goal last week.
Now that Chen and Sukaree have made it home — Slone said that finally happened last Thursday — keeping in touch becomes the next challenge. With those two in China and Thailand, communication becomes a bit more limited in terms of both method and timing.
“We have Snapchat that we chat through a lot,” Nowlin said. “We’ll send funny videos and things like that. We stay in contact as much as possible. It’s definitely difficult with them halfway across the world, different time zones. It’s not as often of contact when everybody’s on campus together or everybody’s back in the states.”
Nowlin described the past few weeks as a whirlwind — especially with how quickly the situation escalated earlier this month. The abrupt cancellation of the golf season on March 12 hit hard.
“There’s times when you’re kind of sitting at home self-quarantining and you’re hit with the realization it’s over,” Nowlin said. “Then there’s other times you’re able to kind of distract yourself.”
Nowlin’s future is unclear. The NCAA has recommended that spring sport athletes whose seasons were cut short be given an extra year of eligibility. Enough details simply aren’t available for the Illinois senior to make a decision one way or the other. Her potential return, though, would strengthen an Illinois team that otherwise would return intact next season.
The Illini were coming off their best tournament of the spring with a fifth-place finish earlier this month at the Hurricane Invitational in Coral Gables, Fla., with Nowlin, Wong and Sukaree all finishing in the top 15 individually. Coupled with a solid fall, Slone was optimistic about her team’s chances of making a run to the NCAA championship for a second straight season.
“I felt that we hadn’t even come close to playing the golf we are capable of, so I definitely felt we were building again to another postseason that included the NCAA championship,” Slone said. “That’s not to say there wasn’t work to be done, but I felt we were definitely capable of that.”
Nowlin was in agreement. That the Illini hadn’t played as well as they would have liked to start the spring season was something she said was motivating the team.
“We were really, really excited to spend these next couple months together competing,” she said. “I think we did have potential to be a really, really competitive team at the NCAA championship — any of the postseason tournaments.
“Trying to stay positive in this situation, now we have this opportunity to kind of focus on our mental game. The teams that do kind of take this time to work on things — it might not be physical aspects like putting or chipping — but the people who use this time in self quarantine to get their minds right and strengthen their mental game, that’s what’s going to set us apart in the future.”