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LSU's head baseball coach Paul Mainieri looks out onto the field before the start of the first inning of LSU's 6-4 win over UMass-Lowell in the final game of a 3-game series Sunday in LSU's Alex Box Stadium. With the win, LSU swept the series.

Freshmen Alex Milazzo and Cade Doughty leaned into the storage compartments of a bus sitting outside Alex Box Stadium on Thursday morning. They grabbed their bags and returned to the locker room. Doughty raised his eyebrows and shrugged.

One by one, players trickled toward the bus. They removed their bags less than an hour before they were scheduled to leave for LSU’s first Southeastern Conference series of the year against Ole Miss. Staff told them to go inside.

“Wild, man,” junior shortstop Hal Hughes said as he walked off the bus holding a pillow. 

Inside the locker room, coach Paul Mainieri held a team meeting. He told the players what the SEC soon announced: the league had suspended athletic competition until March 30 amid the spread of COVID-19.

“What happens the day after March 30, I don’t know right now,” SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said on Thursday. “We’ve seen the dynamics over the last 48-72 hours change around us. Around this country."

LSU's baseball season, on the verge of conference play, had paused for the next 18 days, maybe longer, and no one around the facility knew what to expect next.

Hours later, at 3:16 p.m., the NCAA announced it had canceled all remaining winter and spring championships, including the College World Series in June, because of the continued spread of coronavirus, an unprecedented decision that left LSU wondering if it will play again this season.

"If the College World Series is canceled," Mainieri said, "what are you playing for?"

Mainieri heard of the NCAA's announcement while he appeared on The Paul Finebaum Show. He felt numb. LSU had practiced and trained for months, trying to win a national championship. It had played the night before. And now what?

"It's impossible to even put into words the emotions I'm feeling right now," Mainieri said. "It's just unbelievable."

When the SEC announced it had suspended competition, Mainieri felt shocked and disappointed to have the season interrupted, but he agreed with the decision. On Wednesday, the World Health Organization labeled coronavirus as a pandemic and Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards declared a public health emergency.

Louisiana had reported 19 presumptive cases of coronavirus as of Thursday afternoon. State health officials expected the number to increase. 

“This is a crisis that is unprecedented in my lifetime,” Mainieri said. “It needs to get under control. We care about our loved ones. We want people to survive and live a happy, fruitful life.”

The bus left while LSU met in its locker room, driving out of the parking lot outside Alex Box Stadium without the team. The players soon exited the facility holding bags, pillows, water bottles and snacks they had packed for the trip to Ole Miss. They stepped into their cars as an uncertain period of athletics continued across the country.

The night before, before they played South Alabama, the players had tracked announcements of postponements and restricted access to games. After the Ivy League cancelled all spring sports earlier that day, sophomore first baseman Cade Beloso talked to friends at Harvard. One of them, senior pitcher Kieran Shaw, told Beloso he felt devastated.

When LSU recorded the final out against South Alabama, the teams walked to separate sides of the field. They didn't shake hands, a decision predetermined by the coaches. The Tigers formed a column, congratulating one another, while South Alabama huddled near its dugout.

Once inside the locker room, Mainieri explained the SEC had restricted attendance at all athletic events until at least March 30 to essential staff, limited family and credentialed media. The players felt lucky to still have games.

“If we're told we can't play, we'll deal with it at that point,” Beloso said Wednesday night. “I can't even think about it.”

But Mainieri soon read the NBA had suspended its season and Utah Jazz All-Star Rudy Gobert had tested positive for coronavirus. Mainieri suspected college athletics would begin suspending its spring sports.

At 10:47 a.m. on Thursday, about an hour before LSU was supposed to leave for Ole Miss, the SEC announced it had canceled the rest of its men’s basketball tournament. The league suspended regular season competitions 43 minutes later.

Mainieri sent the players home after the announcement. He met with his assistant coaches. They decided to take four days off and resume practice on Monday, planning to train as they waited for the season to resume.

But now? The Tigers have 39 games left on their schedule and no championship to play for at the end of the season. Players expressed their heartbreak on social media, writing “worst nightmare” and “unbelievable” on Twitter.

Two days ago, Mainieri thought about tweaks to the weekend rotation and beating Ole Miss as the conference schedule began. He thought his team had improved. But with games suspended and the College World Series canceled, Mainieri wondered if LSU will play again this season.

For almost four decades, his career has focused on trying to reach the championship series. His players have trained their entire lives for a chance to hoist the trophy and dog pile on the mound. No one will this summer.

Still, Mainieri emphasized the importance of perspective as the world deals with a pandemic. After the NCAA canceled the College World Series, Mainieri reiterated the message he told his players on Thursday morning, when they still believed they may play for a championship this season.

"There's bigger issues in the world than what's happening with college basketball or college baseball or college softball or gymnastics," Mainieri said. "We've got a crisis that's worldwide. It needs to be dealt with and handled because the most important thing is the health of humanity and the care of our loved ones."


Email Wilson Alexander at walexander@theadvocate.com