Coping with COVID-19 cancellations: student-athletes still sidelined

Despite remaining hopeful that competition would return for the 2021 spring semester, student-athletes at Brandeis University have continued to face disappointments regarding their timeline for returning to play. In July 2020, Brandeis Athletics announced a suspension of all intercollegiate varsity athletics through the new year, canceling seasons for fall and winter sports. This semester, not much has changed, as the University Athletic Association (UAA) continued with their cancellation of conference competition for spring sports in a statement released in mid-January. Although UAA play has been canceled, student-athletes who play spring sports remain hopeful for potential games against other local teams.

Now, nearly one year after Brandeis made the shift from in-person to online learning and sent students living on campus back to their homes across the globe, student-athletes are still powering through additional changes to their normal routines pre-pandemic. Through her emails and communications over the past year, Lauren Haynie, Director of Athletics, has voiced her commitment to Brandeis student-athletes to provide meaningful ways in which they can participate in activities with their teams. 

Across Brandeis Athletics, varsity teams have been able to hold practices up to four times a week and attend small-group workout sessions with Strength and Conditioning Coach Jay Mendoza, so long as strict masking and social distancing rules are enforced. However, each team, athlete and coach has taken their own respective approach to workouts, practices, bonding activities and other team events, transforming their ordinary operations into COVID-19 friendly affairs. Baseball hosted an intra-squad scrimmage, women’s basketball is competing with other UAA teams in weekly drill competitions, swimming organizes intra-squad meets every Saturday, the track and cross country teams are playing virtual trivia and women’s soccer is participating in team building and leadership workshops. 

Just as they are required when facing their opponents, Brandeis student-athletes have adapted and adjusted to a new normal while also finding creative ways to maintain their commitment to athletic excellence. The Brandeis Hoot spoke to a variety of varsity athletes about their experiences, understanding how they have coped and made the most of this pandemic year.

Amidori Anderson ’22, Softball

Softball pitcher and utility player Anderson remembers exactly what teetering with the unknown felt like one year ago as she relives the same experience again now. “Last year was kind of an eye opening time for all of us,” she wrote to The Brandeis Hoot in an email. “The team learned what every other team has learned: to not take our sport for granted. We lost something that has been a part of all [of] our lives for as long as we could remember.” 

When initially hearing the news of suspended competition for the 2020 season, Anderson recalls shedding many tears and reminiscing about her childhood playing the game. “I really could not accept that it was real,” she shared. “Softball has been a huge part of my life. I have been playing since I was three years old and for the first time last spring, I spent my time doing everything but playing softball.”

However, since last spring, Anderson and her teammates have taken the time to come together as a group and figure out ways in which to move forward. She mentioned that the team “sat down … and talked about our goals for each other and for ourselves whether we would have a season or not. We spent our time at practices working just as hard as we would if there were a game the next day. We maintained smiles on our faces and kept our heads held high. It was not easy. You could tell that it was hard for a lot of us.”

Jac Guerra ’22, men’s track and field

Guerra, captain of the men’s track and cross country teams, remembers that his time as a student-athlete is short. “I learned about the UAA championships cancellation while I was coaching a high school team in my hometown this January,” he wrote to The Hoot. “Overseeing training for my former team reminded me of how our time on high school and college teams is so limited. I think, like every other athlete, there is a ticking clock for how much longer we get to compete, which becomes even more apparent for upperclassmen.” 

He continued by highlighting a shift in mentality, saying that he wanted to take the time to enjoy the shortened moments he has left with his team. “I think that after the winter season was canceled this fall, I needed a mental reset and really leaned into my training and tried to enjoy it as much as possible. I think a lot of distance runners love the headspace they get into in the middle of a run, where you can kind of let go of what else was concerning you. Having fun and making the most of it is a theme that Coach Sinead [Evans] has pushed throughout the time trials the team has run last fall and this winter.”

When giving advice to other student-athletes also going through this, Guerra suggests “remind[ing] yourself why you’re here to begin with. I think that in normal seasons a lot of us get caught up in rankings, stats, qualifying, and outcomes that we lose a bit of the mindset that got us here in the first place. We do D3 athletics because we want to be here, we want to be with our teams, and we want to get better at our respective sports.” 

He also remains cognizant of the fact that “we’re likely all competitive people and without competition, it is easy to feel lost or stuck. Every time I’ve got[ten] to that ‘stuck’ place in my head, whether this year or when I was injured last year, I do my best to do something to reconnect with my love for running.” 

Bridget Pickard ’23, women’s track and field

To combat some of these many challenges, the track and cross country teams have found small ways to keep morale high. Women’s distance runner Pickard mentioned a team tradition that has not faded during the pandemic, saying, “We always congratulate each other after finishing a workout or run,” in an email to The Hoot. “This was something new to me after coming to Brandeis, and despite the pandemic, we continue to celebrate every workout and run we complete together.” Pickard is already looking ahead to next year when racing will hopefully return, reminding her teammates during those tough runs that “If we can hit the splits that our coaches give us with masks on, we can go a whole lot faster when they are able to come off.” She also says that, if anything, this time has truly proven just how strong Brandeis cross country and track and field is as a team: “We’re used to persevering because we’re athletes, and we can use this skill to persevere through this as well.”

Harrison Kaish ’22, men’s fencing

In addition to their smaller practices split up by squad, Brandeis fencing is able to come together as a whole team—while socially distanced—each Friday. Kaish, squad captain of the men’s epee fencers, says that these practices consist of a combination of small games and competitions, strength workouts and team bonding and goal setting and mindset training. 

He commends his fellow teammates and coaches for their tremendous strength throughout this experience, saying, “I’m also honestly impressed with how perseverant the whole team has been. Everyone is incredibly committed, shows up on time, and really gives their whole focus and effort into every practice.” But he notes that this is nothing new for Brandeis fencing, commenting, “I think this is in part due to a team culture that I have seen built over my 3 years here, one that encourages support for each other and acknowledges that success only comes from hard work.”

Kaish will return to Brandeis next year for what might be his final year as a fencer. As he reflects on his experience up until this point, he says, “there is still a lot that I want to accomplish and achieve before I finish my time at Brandeis.” “Having a positive mindset and staying motivated is hard, but I definitely think it is possible and incredibly important. I’ve found a lot of this through my own introspection but also from my teammates. They definitely inspire me everyday.” 

Outside of his own team, Kaish also has hopes for the Brandeis athletics community as a whole. He concludes by saying that “seeing the commitment from athletes from other teams really gives me hope that we will be even more successful when everything is over. I also hope that we can take this time to get to know athletes from other teams, which doesn’t feel very common from my perspective on the fencing team. I think this would help us really feel like we’re ‘in it together’ and create greater unity as Brandeis athletes.”

Elliot Morgenstern ’22, fencing

Epee teammate Morgenstern spoke similarly of Brandeis fencing as a whole, saying “My team has definitely been even more supportive of each other, listening to all of the issues that have been taking place in all of our lives. We all know the situation has hit everyone and flipped everything upside down.” He too is calling on all of Brandeis athletics, hoping that they are supporting each other similarly: “I couldn’t be more grateful for my team and hope the other Brandeis sports teams are the same way.”

Maddie LaMont ’22, volleyball

Although spring practices have not started quite yet for the volleyball team, LaMont says that she and her teammates have been in the weight room, lifting as much as they can. “We have team lift every Friday morning,” she said. “It is great to get the whole team together in one place.” While keeping spirits up has been difficult, LaMont reminds herself that “every athlete is going through this right now … We are all figuring life out together … This is a challenge that we cannot control (besides being safe), but this is something that we can all grow from.” She advises other student-athletes at Brandeis and beyond to “[u]se the challenges that this pandemic has brought us as a way to strengthen team chemistry and the love for the sport you play.”

Ema Rennie ’23, Swimming & Diving

For Brandeis swimming, Head Coach Nicole Carter gave her swimmers t-shirts that read “Win the Wait” at the beginning of this year. “At first I didn’t really understand it,” said freestyle sprinter Ema Rennie ’23. As the end of her training season comes to a close, she now realizes what Coach Carter’s original message was. “I have come to understand that our team’s greatest objective is to not give up during this time, because we’re nearing the light at the end of the tunnel,” Rennie explained. But even in noticing a light at the end of the tunnel, Rennie reflects on what is occurring around her on a global scale as she copes with the season cancelation. She reminds us that “While a season cancellation is incredibly disappointing for all athletes, it is necessary to put into perspective how important college athletic competition is in the middle of a global pandemic that has taken the lives of [millions of] people. If a sports season being cancelled is one of the bigger issues one has at the moment, they should be incredibly thankful.”

While recognizing the magnitude of the pandemic in comparison to collegiate athletics, Rennie notes that her youth signals another shot on the pool deck next year. “I am a sophomore and still have two years of competition left; I do not want to speak for seniors as I cannot imagine what they’re going through,” she said. To make it through this time, Rennie shared that “[b]eing on deck with my teammates and coaches, being the happiest I can, not only for myself but also for others is the only support I have needed to cope with cancellation. This year is different than others, but that does not mean it has to go to waste.”  

Aneesh Avancha ’22, Baseball

Like many other student-athletes at Brandeis, Avancha has greatly appreciated continued support from Strength and Conditioning Coach Jay Mendoza, as well as his staff. Mendoza has spent ample time coordinating workouts, modifying sessions to meet health and safety protocols, and committing to the improvement of all of those involved in Brandeis athletics. In an email to The Hoot, Avancha wrote that, “As a team we’ve been doing the best we can to stay as ready as possible to compete. The weight room has been a large factor in [that] preparation … Lifting with Jay has been awesome and he’s helped a lot of us make significant progress.”

However, Avancha comments that “[p]hysical preparation is the easy part; what has become challenging is the mental aspect of staying prepared to play a full season with the constant unknown circulating. I try to take each day individually and improve on a day by day, consistent basis.” Despite these difficulties, Avancha commends the support he has received from his teammates. When reflecting on their season cancelation in the spring of 2020, he said, “Fortunately, as teammates we were all there for one another. It’s definitely not easy losing a year at the collegiate level, but having a locker room full of guys to go through it with was helpful.”

Avancha recognizes that this pandemic has shaken and disrupted every human being’s sense of normalcy. For athletes specifically, he says that “[s]ometimes during the course of a long season, it can become very easy to get lulled into the daily routine of practice and conditioning. Unfortunately with the state of the world right now and how the pandemic has impacted our lives, we no longer can take each day for granted. Approaching each day with a newfound appreciation for being a college athlete has helped us stay in love with the game of baseball.”

Echoing sentiments from many other athletes like himself, Avancha reminds us not to “…take any opportunity to play your respective sport for granted. Our careers are finite. I watched teammates of mine have their collegiate careers ended by a text message.” With this in mind, he encourages other student-athletes to simply “[s]mile, have fun, and enjoy the game. You never know if it could be your last time on the field or court.”

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