On July 22, Vassar announced that athletic teams would not be participating in any intercollegiate competitions through December 31 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The news was bittersweet for coaches and athletes alike. “It was a painful combination of sorrow and relief,” Cross Country Head Coach James McCowan acknowledged via email. “I was sad for my students who worked so hard, for our seniors who would miss their final season, and disappointed to not be able to provide the same kind of experience. I was relieved as I knew it was the right thing to do, and the safest call for our students.”
Although athletes will not return to competition this fall, they may now practice and train with their teams as Vassar enters Phase 2 of the return to campus plan. VassarTogether, a website that outlines the College’s plan for preventing their own COVID-19 outbreak, states that Phase 2 will allow “varsity athletic teams to begin non-contact practices with a focus on small group work/instruction maintaining a minimum of six feet of distance at all times. Teams with larger rosters will subdivide practices into smaller groups. All practices will be supervised by coaches to ensure all appropriate health and safety protocols are followed.” But what exactly will this look like for teams?
For baseball, tennis and other low-contact sports, the return to play will be similar to a pre-COVID practice. Baseball Head Coach Matthew Righter wrote that the team will be split into groups of 10 or fewer for the first few weeks, but that he’s hopeful for some semblance of intrasquad competition to begin between weeks four and six. While he and the team have managed to maintain a positive outlook, he acknowledged the disappointment inherent in a canceled season. Luckily, Righter is no stranger to a good morale booster—last spring, he organized Zoom calls with professional players and managers for his own players. “The players got to ask questions and get to know the people,” Righter recalled, adding, “I think everyone really enjoyed those discussions!”
On the other hand, high-contact sports such as soccer and basketball are likely to move to more individualized drills and fewer full-team scrimmages. “We’re all having to be very creative and adaptable during this time. We are working hard to ensure everyone’s safety while adapting drills, and activities to be fun and competitive,” explained women’s soccer Head Coach Corey Holton via email. The soccer team will continue to participate in the Zoom calls they began in the spring and transition to small, socially-distanced training sessions. Despite their imminent reunion, the aftermath of losing a season still hit hard for the women’s soccer team. “As with any loss, the players are experiencing a myriad of emotions,” admitted Holton. “Each player is processing the loss of the competitive season differently. As we move through this time, we are supporting one another as best as possible.”
Cross Country, a sport that doesn’t fit neatly into either contact-based category, faces unique challenges. When discussing plans for practices, McCowan emphasized safety above all else, stressing the importance of keeping six feet apart and wearing masks. “Cross Country runners are used to covering ground, so it’s an adjustment to be in a small space,” he said, referencing the guidelines that prevent students from venturing off campus. Members of the Cross Country team will at least be able to use the Vassar Farm and ecological preserve as another practice space.
Yet practice is only one aspect of a changing athletic landscape. Strength and conditioning has moved from the basement of Kenyon to outside the newly constructed storage building in the Prentiss Sports Complex. For the Fitness Center and Pool, once open to all students, use will be by appointment only.
Vassar College will reevaluate whether to resume intercollegiate competition next year at an appropriate time, and will take into consideration the state of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the NCAA and Liberty League decisions. Campus and community safety will be the most important determinants for a normal return to play, possibly including a partial winter season. Social distancing standards and group-size limits during and outside of practice will have to be acknowledged and imposed by coaches. The difficulty of maintaining these rules—and at the same time still trying to plan an efficient and fun practice—will be felt by all coaches this fall.
Coaches this semester are tasked with managing their own reactions to disruptions in the athletic community, as well as adhering to the needs of their teams. McCowan described how identifying core values is important in uniting a team in these uncertain times: “We can still continue to develop and grow as athletes, as people, as a community, and that is what we will be focusing on doing.” Righter posited that “Perhaps all of this will help people become more compassionate overall and help to use skills such as empathy and patience when we are put in a tough spot moving forward.” In any case, this fall will answer another question plaguing athletes and coaches across the country: What does it mean to be a team without competing? The uncertainty we all face both eagerly and fearfully can be summed up simply by a line from Coach McCowan: “In terms of what it means to live, train and race post-pandemic, only the future will show!”