CUC Athletics Prepares for a Hectic Spring Under COVID-19

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Men’s basketball team huddles up before their game against DePauw University on January 25th. (Photo Credits/Justin Bjorseth)

Carter Gledhill

On Jan. 23, the Concordia University Chicago (CUC) women’s basketball team hosted the first home athletic competition of the school year. It marked the end of a 315-day absence of NCAA competition on campus. 

Men’s basketball and both men’s and women’s indoor track and field teams are competing on a weekly basis. For the other fifteen teams, the beginning of the semester marks the start of pre-season practices. 

While athletes and coaches gear up for what might be the most unusual semester in CUC athletic history, COVID-19 continues to be the biggest challenge every team must face.

Seven CUC students, including three members of the baseball team, and three faculty members have tested positive for COVID-19 since the start of the semester on Jan. 11. Janet Wolbert, CUC’s Assistant Athletic Director, has worked closely with coaches and student-athletes throughout the year to combat COVID-19. As part of NCAA policy, teams must format their practices in compliance with specific health guidelines. 

“Coaches should be looking at limiting the amount of time for non-socially distance activities, but we know some sports naturally involve more close contact,” said Wolbert. “We just want to try to minimize it if possible. We also scheduled thirty minutes between practices in facilities to allow for one team to be gone before another arrives to provide time to clean and sanitize areas and equipment and athletic training spaces.

These protocols have forced teams to become adaptive and creative when it comes to practice. Men’s soccer, which usually competes in the fall, now practices off-campus three days a week. “It stinks that we have to practice indoors as much as we do,” said sophomore goalkeeper Nick Pasut. “Typically, we practice in warm weather and don’t worry about snow until the playoffs.”

The cold weather and 6 a.m. practices don’t seem to bother Pasut and his teammates. He applauds his teammates for their mindset and ability to “flip the switch”, and bring the intensity on the field. “Once we’re up and going throughout warmups, we’re ready to go and get after it,” said Pasut. 

In addition to the safety precautions taken by the university, all student-athletes are required to wear masks in practice. Ryan McGee, the starting goalie on the women’s lacrosse team, says wearing masks has been a huge challenge for her teammates. “Especially for conditioning, this has been a big adjustment for us and how we practice,” said McGee.

McGee mentions that this year has made practices so much more valuable to her experience as a student-athlete. “Now that I’m back practicing with the lacrosse team, I am so much more excited and starting to get antsy for games to start soon,” said McGee. “I am hoping to have a full season this year because we were on an amazing ride last year when COVID-19 hit, so it’ll be great to finish what we started.” 

At the beginning of their 2020 season, the women’s lacrosse team was on a program-best 5-0 start and on pace to break several individual and program records. In their final game on March 11th, CUC defeated Hollins University 18-2.

For freshman student-athletes, the start of their collegiate careers occurs during one of the biggest health crises in history.  “We have nothing to compare this year to,” said Isabelle Vernengo, a freshman on the women’s volleyball team. “It’s hard to adjust to a new place, new team, and make it your new home. All these COVID-19 restrictions don’t make it any easier.”

Many coaches feel the same stress and worries that their athletes have about their upcoming season.  Now in his second season as the head coach of the baseball team, Kolin Conner has yet to manage a baseball season at CUC without COVID-19. “When you are encountered with something like COVID that is brand new to the world, everyone is learning on the go and everyone is doing the best they can,” said Conner. “Don’t get me wrong it is very challenging for everyone and my life could be infinitely worse, but I would be lying to you if I didn’t say COVID-related things are on my mind 24/7. We have to have back up plans and almost expect things to go wrong.”

The baseball team was on their spring break trip in Florida last March when the NCAA announced the cancelation of all collegiate athletics. Conner says his team has basically been training for two years now. “I know our guys are ready to play and I’m excited for them,” he said. “We talk daily about pacing ourselves and enjoying the journey and the process. It has helped me commit to a mentality that I have passed off to my players. It’s one day at a time, if you look any further you really limit yourself. Being in the moment and being present is the true way to make ourselves better.”

With the days winding down until the remaining teams start competing again, many student-athletes still worry that their seasons may be cut short. Both the men’s and women’s basketball teams have had doubleheaders canceled due to positive COVID-19 cases or teams backing out of competition this season.

 The athletic department worked with the university and local health officials to develop plans for limited numbers of fans to attend home games. This past weekend, CUC allowed fifty students and faculty members to attend three basketball games. “We are still working on logistics for parents to attend, but for now we are limited in capacity by local restrictions, especially for indoor sports,” said Wolbert. “We are evaluating what we can do for outdoor events and fans.”

 Regardless of how many fans are in attendance or who the opponent is, CUC student-athletes are amped up to start competition in the spring. “I’m excited and hopeful we have a full season,” said Vernengo. “It’s been so long since I’ve played in a game, but the team is ready to play someone other than ourselves.”