BLUEFIELD — It took a few minutes for the news to sink in after Bluefield State tennis coach Louis Belt informed Blues netter Tom Schmieta that he had recently earned NCAA Division II All-American status for the 2019-2020 season.
First of all, Schmieta, who hails from Hanover, Germany, wasn’t entirely cognizant of what the honor fully entailed.
“I called him and said, ‘Hey Tom! You made All-American!.’ He said, ‘That’s good. What is that?’ I told him it was a pretty high honor.”
Belt pointed out to him that there are about 2,000 Division II men’s players eligible for All-America consideration and he was one of only 23 accorded All-America status for men’s singles.
“He said he was surprised, excited and also proud to receive the honor,” Belt said.
Schmieta came to Bluefield State in the spring of 2018. He is a pre-med major studying applied science and is on schedule to graduate next fall. However, if he chooses to, Schmieta is eligible to play for the Big Blues next spring. The NCAA has extended an extra season to spring athletes whose 2020 seasons were disrupted due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Schmieta played at No. 3 and No. 4 singles for the Big Blues since joining the squad. He is a relentless competitor and Belt believes its reasonable that young German player might have a shot at playing in some of lesser-known tours that are the tennis equivalent of minor league baseball.
“Don’t get me wrong. He’s a really good tennis player. But moreso than being a talented tennis player he’s a really good competitor,” Belt said. “He is one of those first to practice and last to leave.”
He is also a selfless team player.
“This was an individual honor for Tom, but he is a very team-oriented player. If he lost and the team won instead of him winning and the team losing, I think he’d much rather the team won. He is such a leader,” Belt said.
“He has that long blonde hair. Even though he’s German he looks like some surfer guy in California. And he has a real laid back attitude like that. But he’s also a fierce competitor. And he’s such a good guy. He’s so very humble and I’m so very proud of him,” Belt said.
The 2020 spring tennis season wasn’t a complete wash for the Big Blues men (9-3), who’d managed to squeak in 12 matches before the coronavirus pandemic led to the NCAA shutting down all spring sports.
Not unlike golf, there is a component of fall competition in advance of spring regular season that provided the NCAA the ability to assess individual player accomplishment over the course of two semesters. That, plus what fragment of a season the Big Blues got in before COVID-19 collapsed it all, gave the D-II voters enough solid data to issue All-America nods for 2020.
“One thing that helped (Schmieta) was where he won the ITA Regional tournament and then played in the national tournament. Some of those results carried over into the spring with him,” Belt said.
It probably also didn’t hurt that; Schmieta was a returning player from a nationally-recognized Division II men’s tennis program. Prior to the unprecedented events of this spring, the Bluefield State men were well on their way to pursuing their ninth consecutive appearance in the NCAA Division II national tournament.
Playing for a national championship was a team goal from the outset, so the cancellation of all post-season and regular season play was a deep disappointment for Belt’s players.
“We were coming back from Florida after a spring break trip on March 13. We had won three out of four matches. We’d beat (Rollins), who we’d never beaten before and our last match, we played well but we were a little tired and we lost to 15th-ranked Florida Southern,” Belt recalled.
“More than that ... I felt like the guys were really really pumped and coming together as a team. We stopped to eat at a Wendy’s somewhere in the Carolinas. It was evening time and all of the sudden one of my players shows me an Instagram message from the NCAA that all spring sports have been cancelled,” he said.
After what looked like blue skies for the Big Blues, nothing but gray clouds as far as the eye could see.
“We were really psyched. We were ready to progress with our season. And then all of the sudden the carpet was pulled out from under us and it was over. I think there was some real disappointment.,” Belt said. “From day forward, everything started moving really fast. By the next week, we had pretty much determined that we were (having classes online) and had started our social distancing.”
At that point, the flights were getting more restricted and the borders were closing. At that point, my players just tried to get flights home to their countries and they’ve been finishing their classes on line.
Belt stands to return the bulk of his 2020 squad for next season. If he can get them back. His team is packed with international tennis talent, coming from Denmark (Frederick Bau-Madsen), Sweden (Daniel Shasteen), Morocco (Mohamed Belcora), Germany (Schmieta and Luke Busse), Uruguay (Juan de Frietas)and Columbia (Fabian Avail-Torres). He has had women’s players who hail from Australia, Spain and Serbia.
The severity of the coronavirus pandemic has varied from country to country, and has so affected his players.
“It’s funny. One guy is from Sweden ... and Sweden is a country that has not really had do any quarantine or anything. And then have other people from other countries like Colombia in South America who have been quarantined severely,” Belt said. “It’s been different for each one.”
So far, Belt said, everyone seems to be safe. He’s encouraged them to finish their spring 2020 classes and prepare to return in the fall. He told them they should get in as much practice as possible as soon as it was safe and practical to do so. Once the team is reunited, he said, they would have the most successful and enjoyable school year and season as possible.
“But that all depends on us getting back to normal by August. And who knows if that will happen?” Belt admitted.
There are a great many unresolved issues facing his team, his school, his sport, the NCAA and the world at large. Travel restrictions brought about by the coronavirus pandemic are only one of the obstacles Belt faces. And that, alone, is daunting.
“You know how the longer you wait to book tickets the more expensive they are? Right now I can’t even tell them when we’re able to get flights. Plus at what point am I able to call them and tell them if they can? There are so many moving parts to this,” Belt said. “I think they cancelled the Olympics because people weren’t able to make the preparations even to get there.”
Belt gives the NCAA high marks for its decisive action responding to the coronavirus pandemic, while also managing to be flexible and fair — as evidenced by the extension of an extra year of eligibility to affected athletes.
Belt has seen other evidence of reasonable adaptive behaviors by the NCAA in measured response to a situation that has been exceptionally chaotic and unreasonable.
“I have one girl coming next year who was scheduled to take the SAT in March and she wasn’t able to take it but the NCAA said that Prospective Student Athletes are going to be able to go to school this year and be NCAA eligible without having to take the SAT. That never would have happened before this,” Belt said.
Given the difficulties Belt faces shepherding and bringing back international players he already has on his roster, the process of international recruiting going forward is also a lot more complicated. However, a new pool of ready-to-compete domestic players has also suddenly appeared, should his international recruiting be disrupted by extended travel restrictions brought on by the pandemic.
“There have been some schools who have cancelled their tennis programs and these student-athletes now need somewhere else to go,” Belt said.
Regardless of where new players come from, he said, the normal admissions and eligibility verification processes have been slowed down drastically and, in some places, ground completely to a halt at various points of the chain. Revisions in the process at all levels will be required in order to move forward.
“For example, I’m trying to recruit a player and I need his high school transcripts. Well, this high school has been closed. Until people go back and you can get somebody to compile an official transcript and they can send it to you, there’s just nothing you can do,” Belt said.
“We’re hoping that a lot of these bans are going to be lifted where we can start to take care of it. That’s what I’m counting on as far as people I’ve talked to,” he said.
“On my and end and with the players and parents that I’ve talked to, we’re all trying to proceed like we’ll get everything done. But there’s a certain amount of uncertainty we’re all dealing with,” he said.