From a college basketball championship to a warehouse work at Amazon, in barely a month. Welcome to another chapter of what this spring of the coronavirus has done to the class of 2020. Only, this one comes up with a very fortunate twist.
She has played basketball nearly all her life, so her name could not be more perfect. Holly Hoopingarner. And to understand how good karma has been to her — also her teammates at IUPUI, her coaches, even her family — we need to go back to the second Tuesday in March.
The court at Indiana Famers Coliseum buzzes with joy. The IUPUI women have just won the Horizon League tournament to earn the school’s first NCAA bid in history, and well-wishers crowd around to share the moment up close and personal. They especially want to see Hoopingarner, a senior guard who had been named Most Outstanding Player of the tournament after 16 points and four assists in the 51-37 win over Green Bay. “This has been our dream for a long time,” she says of the chance to go to the NCAA tournament. It’s time to celebrate.
Now we know . . . they had no idea the chance they were taking. Two months later, Hoopingarner can reflect back on that afternoon: “I’m thinking, man, we hugged everybody after that game. There was no social distancing going on on that court.”
At the time, there seemed no need. The coronavirus had barely put a dent in Indiana on March 10 — or so everyone thought. Everyone was wrong. The day before, IUPUI had beaten Cleveland State in the Horizon semifinals. Cleveland State coach Chris Kielsmeier would soon test positive for the virus. So would one of the officials of the men’s semifinals, played the same day on the same court.
Lawrence Central High School — which produced Virginia Final Four hero Kyle Guy— is only six miles away from the Coliseum. On March 6 — four days before IUPUI's title — the semifinals of a boys sectional tournament there had drawn a packed house of nearly 3,000 people. Within a few weeks, five men in attendance that night would be dead from COVID-19, at least another dozen were sick.
Bottom line: By March 10, the coronavirus was already swarming over Indianapolis. It could well have been in the Coliseum that afternoon, when Hoopingarner spent 30 minutes hugging friends and strangers.
She never became infected, so far as she knows. Nor has her family, nor anyone on the IUPUI team. There were many blessings that day, besides victory over Green Bay. They all caught a break.
“Absolutely,” Hoopingarner can say now.
Maybe that thought can help soothe the searing disappointment of what came after. “We were on the highest of highs,” she said. “That’s what you dream about when you start playing as a young kid. You watch the tournament on TV each year and you think, I want to get there. We finally did something that nobody else in our school history had done, and we make a dream come true and we reach our goals. And then within 48 hours, it was taken away from us.”
By Thursday, the NCAA tournament was gone. “It’s been a tough adjustment. I didn’t really have any classes I was taking, I only had my internship left, and obviously that ended as well. Pretty much when everything got cancelled March 12, I was done with college completely; school, basketball, everything.”
From the best moment in her college life to saying goodbye — in two days. She was the only senior on the team.
“Lots of emotions came along with it. It kind of broke me a little bit. Of course, I wanted to play in the NCAA tournament, but I knew I didn’t get another practice, another day, another minute with my teammates. It was over for me. That was the toughest part for me.”
She left the final team meeting and drove home, south of Indianapolis. Must have been an agonizing trip.
“You could say that.”
Hoopingarner regrouped at home for a couple of weeks, completing puzzles with her mom, watching movies, doing workouts. But the future needed tending to. She landed a job in an Amazon warehouse — four 10-hour shifts a week of manual labor. When her coworkers discover her basketball past, they get the biggest kick out of the Hoopingarner on her name tag.
“I’ve been trying to save some money for what’s next, that’s kind of been my focus right now,” she said. “Clean out my apartment, and get ready for the next chapter.”
The next chapter is as a graduate assistant at Florida, starting in August, hoping her career path leads to coaching. That’s if there is a college basketball season in Florida, or anywhere else. The brutal year of 2020 has taught everyone that nothing can be assumed. Her goodbye to playing, for instance, was more abrupt than she ever could have imagined. She’s had a basketball in her hands one time since that day in the Coliseum more than two months ago, and went shooting in a park. “I can honestly say it just did not feel the same anymore, unfortunately.”
But the MOP award from the Horizon tournament still stands on the kitchen counter, along with a piece of the net. “That’s still a very fresh reminder every morning when I walk upstairs,” she said. She has come to terms with how it all ended, and the historic NCAA tournament trip that never was.
“I’m thankful because not a lot of people can say that’s how they ended their career; winning a championship, playing one of the best games of their career. To have that memory to go out on is very special. I feel like it was more about the journey than the outcome. You look back at all the moments you had and the people you did it with; that’s what you’ll remember forever.”
And she’s healthy. Looking back on March 10, it could have been different.