By Jack Herr and Colin Lawless, Staff Writers
The COVID-19 pandemic has done a number on the sports world. Professional leagues were postponed for months, and while the majority are back up and running, they still face their fair share of problems. College sports are only back in some parts of the country, and the schools that have allowed them to resume are subject to more and more scrutiny as the weeks continue.
Gettysburg College is a unique case study: the school, on Sept. 4, decided to begin a de-densification process which would ultimately leave exclusively first-year students and other small groups of students on campus. The rest of the student body would continue the fall semester remotely, which proved detrimental to the return of sports at the college. Gettysburg College’s original goal of responsibly resuming athletic competition, while following COVID guidelines, has presented numerous challenges and novel circumstances for coaches, players, and staff to cope with.
To limit as many group gatherings as possible, student athletes have been given a separate lifting and training area in the Fieldhouse, resulting in the larger student body having sole access to the Jaeger Center. Teams have been starting to hold practices and training sessions in the evenings in an attempt to prepare for a possible season, despite the uncertainty. Hope and determination are the main driving factors for these players in these times.
Gettysburg College sports can be a defining part of a student’s experience, and they cultivate a sense of community. Unfortunately, many of the fall sports are unable to resume as planned. The Centennial Conference canceled all fall sports competition, and the NCAA canceled all Division III Fall Championships. Thus, sports teams are struggling to determine how to proceed.
Phase 1, a part of the college’s plan, was supposed to begin on Aug. 31. Due to the recent spike in COVID cases on campus and subsequent de-densification, this date was pushed back a week. Phase 1 consisted of mostly distanced strength and conditioning activities. For the soccer teams, no soccer balls were allowed during this phase, and the team was divided into groups with a maximum of 10 people. This was easier, however, since only first-year players were able to remain on campus.
Phase 2 began 14 days after Phase 1, and allowed for groups of up to 25 people to meet. For the soccer teams, balls were allowed in Phase 2, making drills and practices easier to facilitate. Phase 3 is scheduled to begin soon if everything goes as planned, and will introduce full contact practice and the ability to scrimmage. Phase 4 would’ve allowed competition against other schools, but that will not be able to happen this fall due to the pandemic. This semester has been and will continue to be difficult, but teams are taking it in stride and working towards resuming competition in the fall of 2021.
The Gettysburgian contacted the coach of the softball team to learn more about how they are handling the situations surrounding the coronavirus pandemic and Gettysburg’s decision to de-densify campus.
The Gettysburg softball team was one of the first teams to halt regular operations at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, and they decided to abruptly cancel their spring season. Head Coach Annette Hunt-Shepherd said that the team went through a “number of emotions” when confronted with this reality, but worked hard to prioritize a team-like atmosphere for the players throughout the initial quarantine. There was also an effort to continue training as much as possible.
Upon returning to campus the week of Aug. 10, the softball team was fully prepared to continue their summer training back at Gettysburg, but were “strongly discouraged to take part in most if not all athletic activity” due to the coronavirus restrictions and college policies. Players were not allowed to play catch, do drills involving a ball, or train together until Sept. 16 — five weeks after their return to campus. Teams were also in an “acclimatization phase” with similar restrictions for the weeks during and after the college’s de-densification process, which have only now begun to loosen. The team currently has one junior and twelve first-year students remaining on campus. Hunt-Shepherd explained that these athletes continue to come to the field with both “an eagerness to learn and positive attitude[s]” in spite of the troubling circumstances.
The softball coaches are also making a strong effort to stay in touch with their eight remote players. Hunt-Shepherd communicates with them mainly via telephone, explaining how their home schedules vary from player to player, unlike when they are at campus. They are training and playing softball in their own communities, making the best of the situation, but still missing being a part of a complete team.
While Hunt-Shepherd does not disagree with the decision to cancel fall athletics, she does wish individual institutions had more discretion. Schools vary in location, size, and housing, she noted, and she finds that subjecting everyone to the same guidelines is not a proactive decision. Lacking optimism, she sees spring sport athletes being negatively impacted, since they have already lost a full season of preparation. However, she does see Division III athletics being able to compete come spring, as long as the college is able to make a full return to in-person classes. She emphasizes that her team is hungry to return and remains competitive. “They don’t just want to play. They want to win,” Hunt-Shepherd said.
Right now, student athletes are left to wonder if they will be given top priority to live on campus if the college resumes with a de-densified model in the spring semester; if so, they might take the opportunity to practice as full teams and compete in the Centennial Conference.
While Gettysburg College athletics are in a tumultuous state, hope is still on the horizon for resuming competition come spring. Even though the suspension of in-person classes for the majority of Gettysburg students was a disappointing decision, compounded with the inability for teams to practice and play together, keeping our student athletes and the campus community safe and healthy is clearly the top priority for the college. In the meantime, first-year students and those remaining on campus will continue to work hard on the field and in their remote classes.