Troy Keller was preparing to make a presentation in his field ecology class last week when he discovered some shocking news: the NCAA canceled its Division-I college wrestling championships.
Keller, a back-to-back 165 lb. Mid-American Conference champion, was looking forward to competing for the school’s first All-American honor since 2004. But instead, he was told that his career would be ending, but “not on his own terms.”
“I broke down in class, just realizing that my wrestling career just ended while I was sitting in class,” Keller said. “I didn’t really know how to take it. I got pretty upset until I had to leave. So that was probably the worst situation possible for me.”
Last Thursday, the NCAA announced that due to the evolving threat of COVID-19, all winter and spring championships were canceled. While this was gutting for the athletes involved, perhaps no group took it harder than the graduating seniors, who lost their last chance to compete for a national title. And for Keller, this week was supposed to be filled with nervous excitement about the upcoming NCAA championships in Minneapolis. If all had gone well, there was even the possibility of him competing in the Olympic trials.
“As a whole, everyone is kind of crushed,” Keller said in a phone interview Monday. “The last three days, I’ve really just spent sitting at home. I haven’t really done anything. We don’t really know what to do. I think everyone is upset.”
Keller and fellow NCAA qualifier Derek Spann were forced to juggle their emotions while also preparing to give a presentation in class. They were both overcome with sadness as they got up to the front of the room.
At the start, Keller struggled to process the news. He didn’t know what to think. But eventually, the reality of the situation set in: Keller wouldn’t have another chance to compete collegiately. His “main thing was to become an All-American, to finish on top,” but now he would have nothing to work for.
Keller knew he shouldn’t be mad at himself, because he didn’t fail. But he also couldn’t be proud of himself, because he didn’t achieve his goals.
“I feel really disappointed,” Keller said. “My parents and my coaches, everyone is trying to calm me, have me look at the positives. But it’s really hard to swallow. I had one goal and essentially I didn’t achieve it. It’s [been] really hard for me.”
Keller thought he had the rest of his semester planned out with wrestling and school. But now he doesn’t have wrestling, and school is online-only.
He still had a largely successful career, becoming the first 165 lb. wrestler in school history to repeat as MAC champion and winning a National Junior College Athletic Association championship.
But like all of the other seniors competing for winter titles, he is disappointed that he won’t have the chance to prove himself on the national stage. The NCAA was supposed to host championships in indoor track, swimming and diving and wrestling; all three were canceled.
Over the last few days, many seniors have voiced their displeasure on social media with their current predicament. Some have offered up their living rooms for a mini-tournament. Others have proposed changes like giving seniors an extra year of eligibility.
For Keller, the last option doesn’t seem too appealing. He’s planning on graduating this semester with a bachelor’s in environmental studies and doesn’t know if he would return to school if he has no more classes to take.
“If they do give me another year to compete, how am I going to [compete]? I already graduated,” Keller said. “I’m going to enroll in school, but I’m almost over with school already. I don’t even know if it’s fathomable to go to school for another semester. It’s just — there’s so much stuff that I don’t even know what to think of.”
Keller favors starting the 2020 wrestling season with the NCAA Championships. In his mind, this would give the graduating seniors a final chance to step on the mat while also ensuring that the NCAA wouldn’t have to go a year without holding a national championship.
But as of now, the NCAA hasn’t announced any plans to remedy the problem.
And Keller wishes he had more guidance about where to go from here.
“No. No one has [reached out],” Keller said. “[Head wrestling coach John] Stutzman, the assistant coaches, but other than that, I have gotten an explanation. I guess there’s no explanation but nobody has reached out from the UB staff.”
For now, Keller is cautiously optimistic that the NCAA will figure something out. He has been in contact with Stutzman about finding a solution, but he is also weary that he will again be disappointed.
“I don’t want to cross my fingers for anything, because I don’t want to get crushed again,” Keller said. “I hope I can get another opportunity at an NCAA Championship. I’m sure it’s the same feeling for every other senior that made it.”
Justin Weiss is the senior sports editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Justin Weiss is the The Spectrum's managing editor. In his free time, he can be found hiking, playing baseball or throwing things at his TV when his sports teams aren't winning. His words have appeared in Elite Sports New York and the Long Island Herald. He can be found on Twitter @Jwmlb1.