Caleb races around a track during the Region 6 Indoor Championship in Pittsburg in February.

Caleb Clay competes in the Region 6 Indoor Championship in Pittsburg on Feb. 21-22, 2020. Clay would go on to qualify for Nationals.

It wasn’t a surprise to Neosho County Community College coach Noe Hernandez that the National Junior College Athletic Association made the decision on the remainder of the track season.

On Monday, the NJCAA followed suit with the rest of the nation in canceling the remaining events of the spring season due to the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19).

“I kind of had a feeling it was going to get canceled because they canceled the NCAA, which is the highest level for a collegiate athlete,” Hernandez said. “Eventually it was going to come down to NAIA and to us, too (NJCAA), so I was not surprised when they said the rest of the season has been canceled because we do feed off to the NCAA once our kids leave our institution. A lot of these kids want to go D-I, D-2, D-3, that’s NCAA, so once they announced the NCAA season was done for the rest of the year, I knew it was just a matter of time for the NJCAA was to cancel ours.”

Hernandez, who has been NCCC’s men’s and women’s track coach since September 2018, has cultivated countless relationships with his student-athletes. To have the season just end as abruptly as it did is inconceivable.

Still, Hernandez realizes the magnitude of the situation. According to the Wall Street Journal, the United States has approximately 16,018 confirmed COVID-19 cases, with 210 deaths, while globally there are more than 265,000 confirmed cases and more than 10,000 deaths. Putting on his coach’s cap, he still feels bad for his athletes.

“It’s rough, I look at it with two views: me being an ex-athlete, I feel their pain, having something taken away that’s out of our control; and it was rough (as a coach) to tell the kids that our season was done when we knew us being a young team being a majority of freshmen, it was rough for these kids to see their season getting taken away for something that we cannot control,” Hernandez said. “But the way this virus has been going around, I go, ‘They kind of made it seem like they were trying to take their season away for different reasons.’ And I had to tell them, ‘Look guys, this is coming from President Donald Trump where our government is saying that this virus is escalating, like we didn’t expect it to escalate this fast. So they’re just watching out for your health.’ And so I had to see both sides, being an ex-athlete, I understand the frustration and the anger these kids have and how heartbroken they were in not being able to compete. But then I had to put on my coaching cap and let them know like, ‘Look guys, this is the best for what’s going on. This is a situation that we can’t control.’ I tell them every day, ‘God has a plan for us. Maybe this was a blessing in disguise for us not to compete for the rest of the season. And just start preparing for next year.’”

For this year, not only has the NJCAA canceled spring competition which includes “all practices, regular season, postseason and national play,” but the college association has halted any on-campus and off-campus in-person recruiting until April 15. Hernandez, though, has been on the horn and on social media with recruits from around the nation, even though the number of those athletes has dwindled since high school spring sports across the country have been canceled, too.

This form of coaching for Hernandez is now nearly 100 percent of his job as opposed to 50 percent, when everything was normal.

Before the pandemic was on everyone’s radar, Hernandez’ athletes were performing at peak level. Two freshman hitting their stride were NCCC’s Caleb Clay and Billy Kiprono, who were both National qualifiers this indoor track season.

On the road to qualify, Clay cemented a new school record with a 21.57 in the 200 meters in the Region VI Indoor Championships on Feb. 21 in Pittsburg.

Kiprono did the same, securing a school record with a 2:29.76 in the 1K in Regionals on Feb. 22. The 200 record was originally set in 2001, while the 1K was first set in 2013.

On March 6-7 at the NJCAA Indoor National Championship in Lynchburg, Virginia, Clay placed 28th in the 60-meter dash with a 6.94, while finishing 22nd in the 200 meters with a 21.79. Kiprono placed 11th after a 2:32.23 in the 1K and also ended in 10th place with a 4:24.71 in the mile, a school record first set in 2013, too.

Reflecting on the season, Hernandez said his two National qualifiers have a distinct trait about them.

“Both of those guys, Billy and Caleb, they both had what me and my coaches (assistants Carlos Cano and Michael McGruder) call the killer instinct,” Hernandez said. “When they get on the track, it doesn’t matter who they go up against, they can be an Olympian or they can be an average Joe, they’re going to come out every single meet and they’re going to run their best to their potential. And so, with those two, it was a true blessing to have them a part of the team this year, and make a stamp for not just our team this year, but our future recruits just because of what those two guys did at indoor nationals. They did open up the doors a lot for our recruiting. And like I said, the outdoor season was going to be our time to open up the door even more for our recruitment because the majority of our kids, a lot of our freshman were done indoor, so outdoor season was going to be their time to shine. Those two kids, Billy and Caleb, they put a foundation for our program for what’s going to be happening the next couple of years.”

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