March 11 was final day of the pre-COVID-19 sports era for Cal.
The Bears’ basketball team beat rival Stanford 63-51 at the Pac-12 tournament and was ready to face UCLA in the quarterfinals at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas the next day.
It never happened.
The Pac-12 shut down the tournament, the NCAA tournament was canceled and all collegiate sports for the rest of the winter and spring seasons were shuttered as the coronavirus pandemic began to gain momentum.
More than nine months later — a stretch that was rougher and more enduring than anyone could have predicted — coach Mark Fox’s squad will will provide the bookend to 2020 as the last Cal team to play before the calendar flips.
The Bears take on No. 21 Oregon on Thursday at Eugene in a 7 p.m. tipoff. By the time players exit Matthew Knight Arena, there will be barely two hours left in the worst year many of us have ever experienced.
It was a year of frightening losses for people around the world.
For Cal sports, it was primarily a year of lost opportunity.
The Cal basketball team wasn’t going to somehow make it to the NCAA tournament, but the Bears would have loved a shot at UCLA after beating Stanford for the second time.
Cal’s track and field season was wiped out, denying Camryn Rogers the chance to defend her 2019 NCAA championship in the hammer throw.
The Cal baseball and softball teams had their seasons canceled just before the start of Pac-12 play. The softball team was moving forward without coach Diane Ninemire, who won more games in any sport (inclucing a national championship) than any Cal coach before stepping down in early March because of health issues.
The men’s golf team had just finished fifth in a field of 19 teams at a tournament in San Diego, and the gymnastics team finished no lower than third place in any of seven events. In both cases, the most important competitions of their seasons were still in front of them.
The Bears’ beach volleyball team was 9-1 and coming off a 3-2 win over fifth-ranked USC — just the program’s second-ever win over a top-5 team — when the beach was closed.
Cal’s powerhouse men’s and women’s swim programs were poised for big performances at their national meets on subsequent weekends. The men hoped to defend their NCAA title after swamping the field for an unprecedented third straight title at the Pac-12 championships, and the women were taking aim at a 12th consecutive top-3 finish at the nationals.
Spring football was canceled, organized off-season activities were banned and coaches and athletes entered the summer unsure when their respective seasons might be played.
Or if they would be.
When fall arrived and the pandemic showed no signs of surrendering, the Pac-12 postponed the fall football season, with indications the schedule might be moved to the winter or spring.
Daily rapid testing arrived, convincing the Pac-12 it could play football in the fall. But non-conference games were scrubbed and a shortened conference schedule wouldn’t begin until November.
This had the potential to be a special season for coach Justin Wilcox’s squad. The Bears capped an eight-win 2019 campaign with a decisive victory over Illinois in the Redbox Bowl, and hopes soared for 2020.
But COVID-19 wouldn’t hear of it.
The opener vs. Washington was canceled after one Cal player tested positive and the entire defensive line was shelved by contact tracing.
Arizona State had to bail a week later because of an outbreak that even infected coach Herm Edwards. A Sunday game against UCLA at the Rose Bowl was arranged less than 48 hours before kickoff and the Bears were steamrolled 34-10.
The Bears, still limited by COVID, played better each of the next two weeks, but lost at Oregon State and at home to Stanford because of costly mistakes, primarily on special teams.
Mostly healthy and intact for the first time all season, Cal upset No. 23 Oregon 21-17, finally securing its first victory on Dec. 5.
The Bears’ final two games, against, Washington State and Arizona, both were canceled by COVID-19 issues, and the weirdest season in Cal football history was suddenly over.
At 1-3, Cal hadn’t played such a brief football schedule since 1894 — the same year Coca Cola was bottled for the first time and the Hershey’s chocolate company opened its doors.
The Bears were 0-1-2 that season 126 years ago, with a pair of ties against the Reliance Club and a 6-0 defeat to Stanford in what was just the fourth Big Game.
Back in 1894, no one would have believed what 2020 would bring.
Follow Jeff Faraudo of Cal Sports Report on Twitter: @jefffaraudo