Some Kentucky seniors utilize eligibility waiver for extra year playing college sports

César Bourgois celebrates during the University of Kentucky vs. Louisiana State men’s tennis meet on Sunday, Feb. 21, 2021, at the Hilary J. Boone Tennis Complex in Lexington, Kentucky. Kentucky won 4-0. Photo by Jack Weaver | Staff

Braden Ramsey

Nate Sestina came to Kentucky as a graduate transfer in 2019-20 looking to use his final year of collegiate eligibility to compete for an NCAA Championship. With the Cats on their typical perch atop the SEC and rounding into form come tournament time – as they seemingly always did – this goal seemed more than attainable. In fact, it was nearly within his grasp. 

COVID-19 ripped that dream away. Not only from him and his one-and-done teammates, but every spring sport athlete on Kentucky’s campus. The news hit particularly hard for the seniors anchoring those squads. 

“We were packing up our stuff, about to go to Vandy. Like almost walking out the door,” Kentucky baseball first baseman T.J. Collett recounted. “Then they told us that’s canceled, and the next day they said we needed to go home.”

“I tried to erase it all,” he continued. “For three or four weeks, I thought I was done playing baseball for the rest of my life. I thought baseball was over for me.”

“I was really sad… I didn’t think I was ever going to get to play softball again,” UK dual-threat star Autumn Humes said. “I’d devoted so many years of my life to this sport, and just to see it end not on my terms was very disappointing and depressing.”

“There was a period where I was really low,” she described. “I was feeling like I just wasn’t complete. I felt anxious all the time just because I didn’t really know what to do.”

Collett, Humes and countless others needed a miracle in order to close things out the right way. Many in the college athletics industry called for the NCAA to step up and provide relief. There were rumored to be discussions within the organization about doing so in March of 2020, but nothing was announced. Until April 5, 2020, when the Division One council officially granted a blanket waiver for all spring sports if universities accepted.

“The Council’s decision gives schools the flexibility to make decisions at a campus level,” Council chair M. Grace Calhoun said at the time. This meant that, while the option to return was available, nothing was guaranteed. Athletes would have to summon the courage to have conversations with high-ranking faculty. Thankfully, those actually weren’t difficult. In fact, in some instances, it was the athletics staff that reached out.

“I forget if it was that day or the next day [after the waiver approval], but [Athletic Director Mitch] Barnhart called me and told me that they were going to stay true to my scholarship and ask me back,” Collett said. “That was a huge weight off my shoulders.”

Collett made it clear he had no intention of leaving when it became apparent he could stay.

“There was no question on my end,” Collett laughed. “Once I found out I could come back, that was my choice.”

Two of his teammates, Zeke Lewis and Jaren Shelby, also exercised the waiver. Collett said there was a pretty quick consensus among the three of them that they were returning.

‘“I texted them and was like “what are you guys doing?” And they were like “we’re coming back,’” he said. “It was a short conversation… I don’t think there was much hesitation from any of the guys.”

Baseball head coach Nick Mingione detailed the impact each of the three have had on the program, starting with Collett, whose career has been drenched in adversity.

“He’s a guy I get emotional talking about… he’s been through a lot. He’s been through five surgeries. This is his fifth year,” he managed to say before momentarily choking up. “He has given everything he has to this place… you don’t get to coach a lot of people like him.”

His admiration for Lewis and Shelby isn’t lacking either. 

“Jaren and Zeke may not have the at-bats or innings, but their presence is just as important and their voices are just as loud,” Mingione said. “[They’re] two of our better leaders… When they speak, everyone listens. Players, coaches, everybody… they’re just special.”

Humes thought through what to do, eventually deciding to call softball head coach Rachel Lawson and ask what she thought about her remaining on the roster for 2020-21.

“At the time, I was debating if I wanted to come back or wanted to hang up the cleats. But that just didn’t feel right to me,” she said. ‘“I remember calling Coach Lawson and saying, ‘hey, if this by chance happens to allow me to come back, can I come back? And she says, ‘absolutely.’ Once we got wind that we were going to get the extra year, I just felt like it was right for me to come back.”’

While the move was primarily made to continue athletic competition, it was beneficial in more ways than one. Humes, who was returning to school for an additional semester anyway, added a coaching minor. Men’s tennis player Cesar Bourgois – who graduated in Spring 2020 with a marketing degree – also added a minor to his academic record, seeing the opportunity as a win-win.

“I mainly came back for tennis,” Bourgois said. “But I think I won on both sides, tennis and academics… it still helps me for my resume.”

Like Collett and Humes, the graduate student out of Paris didn’t see himself playing another match for the Cats because of the cancellation. He considered the NCAA’s decision to be fantastic.

“When the season got canceled… I thought, and I think everybody thought, that the seniors would be gone,” Bourgois said. “For a couple weeks, I really thought I was done… I think it was a great choice from the NCAA.”

The waiver has enabled every Wildcat to play a big role in a successful season. The baseball team is back on the NCAA Tournament bubble after two down years. Softball began its season 19-0, a record that now stands as the best start in program history. Akvile Parazinskaite, of women’s tennis, is part of the No. 1 ranked doubles tennis duo in the country with freshman Fionna Arrese. Lithuanian grad student Lesedi Jacobs and Diana Tkachenko helped power that program to both a perfect non-conference record and a top-25 ranking. Not to be outdone, the men’s tennis team – of which Bourgois is a team captain – went a sparkling 15-0 at home. This includes a Senior Day triumph over then No. 16 Mississippi State 4-0. Ahead of the match, Bourgois was, as one could expect, in his feels.

“I had a great time here. It went by so fast,” he said. “I’ve achieved a lot of things since I’ve been here… for sure a very emotional day.”

More than anything, he was grateful.

“It was a weird year last year… I was just really happy about the chance to come back,” Bourgois said. “Extremely relieved… I’ve enjoyed it even more than I could ever [have imagined]… It really feels great to be back for one last ride.”

Collett echoed that sentiment – not with regards to his historic accolades, but to the relationships he has established over his lengthy career.

“[I’m] more thankful for just the opportunity to be on the field or in the dugout with these guys,” he said. “You ask any player that’s been done playing, they don’t say they missed the home runs and the doubles. They say they miss the guys, competing, being part of a team.”

Humes struggles every so often not to press when on the field, feeling obligated to rise to the occasion. When those moments bubble to the surface, she remembers to view her playing time through a different lens.

‘“Sometimes I put a lot of pressure on myself to perform well because ‘you came back. If you’re gonna come back, you better be the best… you’re not allowed to have bad days.’ You’re supposed to perform well all the time,”’ she said. “But I try to look at it in a different way… you’re lucky and blessed to be able to take the field again… [this is] an additional opportunity rather than something I’m pressured to do.”

Her teammates also help her relieve that pressure.

“They always have my back, whether it’s putting up runs or picking me up whenever I do do something wrong,” she said. “I just know if I don’t get it done, the person behind me will.”

And, like the others, she possesses a sense of gratitude just to be in the heat of battle one more time.

“It’s been such a blessing, to say the least,” Humes said of the waiver. “I am not even supposed to be here. For me to be able to take the field and play games like Alabama is something I shouldn’t take for granted and ever forget.”