Though all competitive play was suspended for the season, fall sports teams will soon resume practice with new COVID-19 guidelines. As they prepare for a semester filled with unknowns, they will have to find a new normal ahead of a potential delayed season come the spring.
On July 16, the Southern Athletic Association (SAA) announced their intention to suspend all competitions for the fall season. Though disappointed, Director of Athletics Angel Mason said it was the right thing to do.
“I personally believe we need to figure out how to manage one thing before we can attempt to manage the other, so first managing our campus before we try and manage additional things,” Mason said. “We have three of our conference schools already who are completely remote this fall, and though we here at Berry are able and are working very hard to bring back all of our students, that’s not something that we are able to do across the conference.”
Mason shared the news with Berry’s head coaches a few hours before it became public, giving them the chance to inform their players themselves. For most coaches, like Head Football Coach Tony Kunczewski or Head Men’s Soccer Coach Richard Vardy, this meant conducting a Zoom meeting with their players. While not ideal, especially for Kunczewski given the size of the football roster, both coaches gave credit to Berry’s administration for the way they handled the information’s release.
Head Volleyball Coach Caitlyn Moriarty was more fortunate, as the news arrived on the exact day she was visiting her players on a team retreat, giving everyone the chance to lean on one another for support.
“Our players had organized a player-led retreat, so they were at one of the player’s lake-houses in Alabama, and coincidentally my assistant and I were there for the day when we found out and that way I was able to tell them in person.” Moriarty said. “It was such a blessing to be together, to be able to not have that call virtually. What was neat was the team had already spent four days prior to that together and they still had three days left in their retreat, so it gave them a chance to obviously bond, but also lean on each other. As a coach, that’s really encouraging that no player had to deal with this news alone.”
Mason, Kunczewski, Moriarty and Vardy all said they had been expecting the news, but that did not make it any less painful to hear, specifically for the seniors who might lose their final season of college athletics.
“It’s especially disheartening for our upperclassmen, especially those seniors,” Mason said. “This could be the way in which they end their careers, and this is something that we couldn’t have planned for and that we’re just trying to manage through.”
But rather than wallow in their misfortune, all fall sports remain determined to make the most out of their limited opportunities. Starting Aug. 31, every team will be permitted to resume practice, albeit with new COVID-19 regulations in place, something Moriarty said nobody is taking for granted.
“The team is positive and focused on what we are allowed to do,” Moriarty said. “Though it might look a lot different this school year, we’re grateful for the things we can do. In many ways, it feels like we’re doing a lot and we’re thankful that we’re allowed to do that, because there are a lot of institutions and many of our competitors in the SAA that don’t have that opportunity this fall.”
Mason said the athletic department will also continue to assess the situation with potential non-conference games in mind, though she knows a lot needs to happen before that can become a possibility.
“We have a lot of very strict guidelines as far as our ability to get to competition, and a big part of competition is having someone to compete against,” Mason said. “So if we don’t have people whose standards are at a minimum of where we are, I would not be comfortable having our athletes go to their campus, and until our campus is a place where we’re allowing visitors, we won’t be able to have anybody here, so there are a lot of factors to get to that point.”
Regardless of any outside competition, Mason said she hopes the situation at Berry reaches a point where it is safe to provide some forms of athletic events for the community.
“We’re going to try and do some things here on campus, once we’re able to manage the programs a bit, to do some fun things for students to be able to attend, for our athletes to be able to have some form of competition with some inter-squad scrimmages and something like that, that we can still be able to gather in a safe way when we get to that point,” Mason said.
Any such plans will, however, be highly contingent on how the COVID-19 situation evolves. All teams, as well as the athletic department, will therefore need to accept that there are some things they cannot control, according to Kunczewski, who said his team will be focused on what they can control as they train with a potential spring season in mind.
“We plan on lifting and running and having padded practices this fall in preparation for a spring season,” Kunczewski said. “We don’t know exactly what that spring season is going to look like, but we want to be prepared and we want to take this opportunity as a program to get better. We can’t control the events necessarily, what happens, but we can control our reactions to it, so that’s what we’re talking about, that’s what we’re going to make sure that we do.”
Vardy was of the same mind and said he was happy with the opportunity to use the fall as a lengthy preseason.
“I know it won’t be a complete replacement of games, obviously, but it’s a good thing,” Vardy said. “It allows the teams to get together and practice and use it, hopefully, as a long, long preseason. At the very least it’s going to be a chance to hang out with your friends, your teammates, to enjoy playing the sport you love.”
And though a potential postponement of fall competitions to the spring would generate its fair share of complications, Mason said she was determined to do everything in her power to make it work.
“I want everybody to have an opportunity to play,” Mason said. “I know it’s going to be difficult for us to manage, I know it will be difficult to provide the same type of game-day experience that we have, but I think it’s more important for us to figure out the how and not just say no to it because it’s not convenient. Our priority is our student-athlete experience, and therefore the rest of us have to do what we have to in order to provide opportunities. I’m all about us being able to have as much of a full experience in the spring as we possibly can, and that includes our fall sports playing at that time.”
The NCAA already relaxed its restrictions on out-of-season practices to facilitate a potential move to the spring, but before anyone can plan further for that eventuality, the situation will have to improve. As such, every sports team will have their part to play in ensuring Berry remains a safe environment, s o m e t h i n g Kunczewski said everyone was well aware of.
“We’re going to follow all the school, the local and the state guidelines, and the NCAA guidelines to make sure that we’re safe,” Kunczewski said. “That’s going to take priority over everything else, and that’s something that if we want to protect others, we got to protect ourselves, and we’re going to do what we can to ensure that we do have a spring season. Part of that is making sure we’re disciplined with all the protocols.”
In that spirit, Moriarty said the volleyball team would change how their practices are run, as they will wear masks and favor smaller group activities based on positions. As for Vardy, he said he planned on turning his focus towards more technical, individual drills to minimize contact during practice.
And though the future still holds many question marks for Berry’s sports teams, Moriarty said there is one thing she remains sure of: her team.
“There’s so many unknowns, but as far as commitment level, buy in and excitement, I think all those things will be the same,” Moriarty said. “I know our team will work hard, I know that they’ll be focused on the moment and, again, grateful for what we are allowed to do. I think there’s so many different possibilities of what the spring may look like, so we’ll just try to adapt our end and try to keep it as normal as possible.”