Because of COVID restrictions that cancelled months of sports activities, the Department of Athletics faced something they had never dealt with before this spring — figuring out how to juggle two seasons of sports simultaneously, while also taking into consideration pandemic safety restrictions.
Following CDC and NCAA protocols, the department created an action team that met multiple times a week to review game scheduling, operation needs, changing health guidelines, and more in order to keep athletes safe. Together, they designed safety protocols for staff, coaches, and athletes in each individual sport, taking into account whether sports were being played indoors or outdoors, and any travel plans. These protocols included rigorous testing regimes, creative scheduling to allow for proper social distancing, and strict hygiene and mask requirements.
Balancing the many new policies and procedures took an immense amount of coordination, planning, flexibility, and education, said Jaime Walls, assistant athletics director.
“The department took on all of the scheduling, testing, and contact tracing for all of these athletes with the bulk of the work falling on the athletic training staff; whose main job is to prevent, recognize, treat, and rehab athletic injuries,” she said. “With an athletic population of around 600 students, this has been a large undertaking.”
Matthew Donohue, head women’s basketball coach, said he was “overwhelmed with gratitude” to have his team playing again, even if it meant “reimagining everything.”
“The opening days and weeks of practices were filled with equal parts anxiety, excitement, and uncertainty,” he said. “We all knew that practice, games, team meetings, and everything else in between would be unlike anything we had ever experienced, and that certainly proved to be the case.”
Basketball team practices took place with athletes and coaches in masks, in small groups, and with hand sanitizer available before and after every drill. Team meetings that would typically happen in a locker room were moved into more expansive spaces to meet social distancing protocols. Even still, the team was able to advance to the Landmark Conference Championship game, eventually losing by only one point.
“I do not think that it is possible for us, as a coaching staff, to be more proud of this team,” Donohue said. “They sacrificed a great deal to be together and to be able to compete this year. … Their character, team unity, and sheer resilience shined through.”
Tyler Ziegler, head coach of men’s and women’s swimming and diving, was also proud of what his student-athletes were able to achieve this season. Both the men’s and women’s teams earned titles in the virtual Landmark Conference championship. The tournament took place at four individual campus sites, with student-athletes from each school competing against their teammates. Team scores and individual results from all four sites were then compiled by the Landmark Conference.
“I think being back in the pool gave us all a sense of appreciation for the opportunity and for our sport,” Ziegler said. “In what was most certainly the most unique year of my coaching career, and likely the most unique year any of our athletes have faced, the team met every challenge we faced head-on.”
Regarding the championship, Ziegler said it was a challenge for swimmers not to have their opponents in the lanes next to them, but that the team still raced very well, with the men earning their fifth consecutive championship win and the women earning their second-straight.
“What stood out to me most was the way that our team brought a championship environment to our own pool deck,” he said. “The level of support and energy on our pool deck was unparalleled.”
— G.O. and K.B.