Delayed. Cancelled. Postponed. These are the buzzwords of 2020. Sports and movies were delayed, concerts and Comic-Cons were cancelled. Life at Millersville University was no different. When students were sent home in March and the spring sports season was cancelled, there was hope that when the fall semester started, things would look similar to how they usually do. Unfortunately, the Covid-19 pandemic has not lessened its grip on society; in fact, many people have a threatening vision of a dramatic winter spike.
The realities of this pandemic have forced some changes around Millersville for the Fall 2020 semester. One of the most notable differences is the lack of fall sports. There are no pregame tailgates around Biemesderfer Stadium on Saturdays and no packed gymnasiums anxiously watching the Women’s Volleyball team. No one is huddled together, braving a chilly autumn evening to cheer on the soccer teams.
It came as no surprise when the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference voted to suspend all athletic events through the fall semester. In a July 14 statement, PSAC Commissioner Steve Murray said, “It has become apparent that the safe conduct of sports under the guidelines of social distancing is untenable for our members. We cannot place our student athletes at greater risk than the general student body. Despite our planning and collective efforts, it has become clear that we are not able to do so.”
The pandemic and this semester’s mostly online format have caused a shift in every student’s schedule. This is a different semester for everyone, but the changes particularly affect the Millersville student athletes. Student athletes live a balanced and structured life to get the most out of their education and compete at the highest level. Now due to the pandemic, student athletes must restructure their daily routine.
These changes affect everyone in a different way, both in the virtual classroom and on the field, court, or track. Nathan Erb, a junior Forward on the Men’s Soccer team, is someone who has found difficulty with the adjustment. “My day-to-day experience has changed tremendously with virtual classes. For me, this format is harder than normal because I enjoy going into a classroom and learning rather than looking at a screen and learning through a computer. It’s a lot harder to engage with my professors since I can’t just go up to them after class to talk to them,” Erb said.
This is the case for many of Millersville’s student athletes. Rebecca Dalstad, a sophomore defensive specialist on the Women’s Volleyball team, finds online classes more difficult because without a strict schedule of classes, she finds it easier to procrastinate and push work off. Alexa Happ is in a similar situation. The senior distance runner on the Track and Field team began her student teaching this year, which makes her day-to-day life significantly different with virtual classes.
Kate Strickland, a sophomore Forward on the Field Hockey team, has focused on finding a new routine that works for her. “One of my biggest challenges is creating a schedule for myself. Obviously right now I have more free time than I have ever had before so just creating a routine has been helpful and allowed me to use my time wisely. Each week I find myself growing as a virtual learner and learning how to do school online as opposed to in person,” Strickland said.
It hasn’t only been the academic life that has changed though, every student athlete’s athletic life has been altered as well. Gabriela Karch, a junior sprinter on the Track and Field team describes some of the changes to her experience on the track as drastic. “[We] complete a daily COVID screening, warm up with masks, can’t give high fives at practice, and can’t even stand next to people who aren’t in our pod. Also, when we lift in the weight room, we have to wipe down everything we touch and we can only lift with 16 people in the room max versus our usual full team of 40.”
As Karch mentioned, practice for every sports team looks different. Each team is hoping to compete at a later date, so coaches and the athletic department have devised strategies to hold safe, socially distant practices that adhere to Millersville’s health protocols. Teams have similar practice plans, such as breaking up the roster into pods, but ultimately teams are practicing in the best ways to remain healthy and prepare for an upcoming season.
The Men and Women’s Soccer teams are running near-identical practices. Erb spoke on their practices, saying, “We are broken up into pods by position. We have four pod groups, goalies in one, attackers, midfielders, and then defenders. Since each pod is broken down by position, Coach [Widdowson] has us doing specific drills based on our position. We practice three times a week and lift twice a week.”
Cassie Blyth, a junior Midfielder on the Women’s Soccer team elaborated more on the types of activities they are doing. “The team is divided into pods of eight, which help us stay around the same people. In order to follow those protocols, we have been doing technical drills and exercises, such as juggling, ball work, and dribbling. Unfortunately, we are unable to participate in any contact drills, so we are focusing on perfecting our touches,” Blyth explained.
Track and Field is probably the best sport to hold socially distant practices. Happ said Coach Young has the team doing various activities to stay in shape for potential 2021 competition. “For distance runners, we are working hard to get our mileage back up and adding a mix of various distance workouts, such as 800-meter or 1000-meter repeats, progression runs, hill repeats, and much more. [Our two distance pods] will run in completely opposite directions or maintain appropriate distancing by spacing out runners and going on opposite sides of the road.”
The Women’s Volleyball team also used pods of eight at practice. They have two practices and two lift sessions a week, as well as online yoga sessions, but as Dalstad noted, the whole team is not living on campus. This is the case for every team, since the pandemic has given students more options to learn remotely. Some athletes chose not to live in campus housing or off-campus apartments, and instead elected to commute to campus for practice. Strickland is one such commuter. She travels to campus once a week to practice with the Field Hockey team.
These unique circumstances have further complicated practices because not all athletes are even available to attend. Student athletes who live far away from Millersville have not been to campus this semester. Pili Zaballa is a sophomore on the Field Hockey team, but as an international student, Zaballa is currently living in her home country of Argentina. Pili is now doing her best to stay fit by running and power training when she can and hopes to return in January.
Additionally, Coach Smith has done a great job expanding the recruiting field for the Women’s Volleyball team, meaning he has found players in locations well outside of Pennsylvania. The Volleyball team has freshman from Florida, North Carolina, New Hampshire, and even Ontario, Canada. Rylee Thomas is one of Coach Smith’s freshman recruits, a Middle Hitter who is living in Florida this semester. When asked about how she stays fit, Rylee answered, “Coach Smith has us preparing to take the court in our best shape, whenever that may be. For those of us like myself who are much farther away, we have a workout plan put together that we follow and try to get on the court in our hometown however we can.”
For all of the players, coaches, and teams, the goal is to complete their postponed season in the spring semester. As with everything in life right now, athletic departments in the PSAC are unsure when, how, or if the fall sports will get a new season. Currently, there is a schedule in the works for fall sports, which is set to be reviewed by the PSAC President before Thanksgiving. Every athlete is eager to get back to competition with their teammates. Dalstad and her teammate Amanda Neessen are especially hopeful volleyball can have a winter or spring season as long as players continue to follow the safety procedures.
Karch is just as eager to get back on the track. “Right now, it’s not looking like we will have a winter season, as it would be almost impossible to have so many people inside cramped up like indoor meets typically are, but we are very hopeful for a spring season since last year’s spring season was cancelled as well. We are all very anxious and hungry to get back on the track and show what we got.”
While this semester has been a whirlwind of uncertainty and anxiety for fall student athletes, the worry is heightened for seniors. If the pandemic has a deadly winter spike, the PSAC might have no choice, but to postpone fall sports entirely for the 2020-2021 school year, so there is a possibility that seniors have already played in a Millersville uniform for the last time.
Sadly, this is a scenario that has crossed Happ’s mind multiple times. “It has made running and putting in all the miles difficult,” she admitted. “However, I talked to my coach and teammates about how I felt. Through their help I was able to work through the sadness and negativity. Honestly, I am not disappointed in my college running career. Every race might not have been my best, but at the end of the day I know I gave it my all.”
Hopefully every student athlete can adopt Happ’s positive mentality. So many seniors have worked hard and given great performances in their sport. No matter how the rest of their senior year shakes out, the senior class has already represented Millersville well. Haley Peachey is a senior on the Women’s Soccer team who has excelled on the field and in the classroom, earning her first PSAC Scholar-Athlete award in 2019. Faced with the possibility of a cancelled senior season, Peachey said, “My greatest disappointment would be not having a chance to compete for my last season of soccer and finish out my soccer career with my teammates that I have built such strong connections with. We have worked so hard as a team and it would be disappointing to not get a chance to fight for a championship after all of our hard work.”
For other athletes, this time away from competition offers the opportunity to reevaluate personal and team goals and create an entirely new level of motivation. Happ is determined to get back on the track and break some of her personal records this year. Blyth hopes to be a role model for the underclassmen, while helping the Women’s Soccer team win a conference championship. Dalstad strives to improve her defense and movement to the ball and be a better encouraging teammate. Erb only wants to get another ring for the Men’s Soccer team and go for the three-peat that has never been done in PSAC history.
These are all worthwhile goals to have. Here’s hoping the PSAC finalizes and approves a schedule for fall sports to play in the spring and all of Millersville’s student athletes get to return to competition. The fall semester here at Millersville hasn’t been the same without our favorite fall sports.