The first practice for any new senior team captain is a little nerve-wracking. That isn’t to say they’re not confident—after all, they are walking into their fourth year as true seasoned veterans. They know the plays, their coaches’ habits, even the dips of the field. Yet, donning that captain band requires not only enough physical and mental energy to carry them through the sweat, the callouses, the heartache, but also the responsibility of carrying the rest of their team. Top all of that off with trying to navigate practices during a pandemic and the reality of losing their last chance to compete as college athletes, and this year’s senior captains of Vassar athletic teams have much to bear.
When the possibility of losing this fall season was raised, athletes were not surprised, but the actual confirmation prompted a flood of bittersweet emotions. “When I first heard that our season would be canceled, I was honestly relieved. I was nervous about what the season would have looked like, but more importantly how we would have kept ourselves and the Vassar community safe,” expressed women’s soccer senior captain Ally Thayer ’21 via email. She also acknowledged the personal sorrow of losing the fall 2020 season: “Soccer has been a huge part of my life, and this would have been the final season of my career. I definitely had to process that.” Co-captain Fiona Walsh ’21 shared her own disappointments, describing via email, “You work your whole life with the goal of being [able] to play in college. Hours and hours. And then you get here, right? And you work your whole college career with the goal of playing during your senior season. That’s really the pinnacle for most athletes. So, personally, I was left with this feeling of unfinished business, like the best was still yet to come.”
Without a competitive season, Thayer, Walsh and their co-captains had little precedent to guide them through early fall. After having to accept and deal with their own grief, these captains spent September turning around and comforting their old teammates while also welcoming a whole new rookie class. Pre-season is often a first-year’s introduction to and induction into their team, and is thought to be vital for building chemistry and communication early on. “Soccer, being a fall sport, has a preseason in early August where we all get to come early to campus and get to know each other,” explained Thayer. This year’s August pre-season was canceled due to COVID-19 safety regulations. Thayer added, “We have a very large first-year class this year, so it has been tough to not only meet one another but develop friendships.” Walsh elaborated on the importance of bonding and chemistry-building during preseason, but also found that the COVID-19 restrictions fostered a greater sense of community and trust within the team: “COVID-19 has created this sense of unity in looking out for one another’s health—and that extends beyond just physical health—during these difficult times.”
For winter and spring season athletes, the fall off-season (sometimes known as fall ball) is an opportunity to start training and build team relationships. Captains report that this period has also been inhibited by COVID-19 safety restrictions. Haydn Hallman ’21 and Alessandra Fable ’21, senior captains of women’s lacrosse (whose season takes place in the spring), expressed frustration at some of these challenges. Hallman explained via email, “We have made the most of the team bonding we are [allowed] to do while following the rules. It has added an extra layer of challenges though. It’s hard to bond when you can’t hug an upset teammate, give a high-five, or see your teammates’ smiles.” Fable described some of the tactical challenges that restrictions have imposed: “It is really hard to develop cohesion amongst players when defensive and attacking units cannot fully practice together due to smaller group sizes. A large part of fall ball is developing chemistry as new players are brought in and that is very difficult to do with restrictions.” Phase 2, the current stage in Vassar’s COVID-19 reopening plan, allows “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.”
For squash and other winter sports, mid-fall is when pre-season takes place, as competition begins in November. But since squash is played indoors, the team is one of the few that haven’t been able to practice at all since returning to campus. Senior captain Milind Joshi of men’s squash talked about how his team has been working around staying safe while not having a training space: “The wait is frustrating and my team and I are hoping that things will change soon. The women’s team captains and I are a tight-knit group so as a way to get face-to-face interactions and some team bonding, we’ve been assigning random groups to do some fun activity of their choosing, with groups changing every week so that the first-years get to know their teammates.”
Since entering Phase 2, teams have been able to ease into training the past few weeks, albeit with major changes to how practices operate. Most squads have been split into small pods where athletes are required to wear masks and social distance, and have focused on more individualized, non-contact drills. Still, the familiarity of being able to have some sort of training in their sports has introduced some normalcy in these strange times, and even cultivated new opportunities for student-athletes to think and discuss off-the-field matters. “I think the biggest advantage is that we now have structured time in our practice to talk about social justice issues and what it means to be a student athlete at Vassar,” explained Thayer. “In a pre-COVID regular season, we have not had the formal time designated to these discussions, so I hope this year will cause lasting changes.”
Captains have largely embraced the new demands of the pandemic, as they live through an experience that their predecessors cannot offer guidance on. “Being a captain is a lot different than I thought it would be. Because COVID has changed so many campus rules, there is a lot more responsibility for the captains,” said Fable. Joshi also went on to praise the adaptability of his teammates, saying “everyone is motivated and we’ve found some really creative ways to try and train without the courts being open.”
Thayer expressed how she hoped the conversations she has helped start during this time will be carried on: “This year the focus is more heavily put on keeping everyone safe and healthy, maintaining mental and physical health, and having introspective critical conversations about social justice, racism and athletics both at Vassar and nationally. In previous years, we have not been good enough in these areas, so I hope future captains will continue the work we are doing when soccer games are reintroduced.” If these first few weeks are any indication, the captains’ ideals should certainly live on in their immediate successors, who they are currently leading. Joshi praised his teammates again, saying “I’m also very proud of how everyone has handled coming back during the pandemic, and we’ve made sure that we’re following the rules because campus safety and health is our priority, not athletics.”