Mary Harrison, Campus Carrier sports editor
Vikings sports teams are enjoying an almost pre-pandemic atmosphere of normality when it comes to COVID-19 regulations this year.
As of an email sent by the President’s Office on Aug. 8, Berry College no longer requires testing, contact tracing or universal masking for students. Athletic Department protocols are no different from the college’s institutional protocols, according to Berry Athletic Director Angel Mason.
Student athletes, as with the general student population, are asked to test only when symptomatic and, if positive, can return from isolation after a single negative test.
Neither the NCAA nor Southern Athletic Association (SAA) requires special COVID-19 regulations for seasons in the 2022-2023 school year. The NCAA waived its weekly testing requirement due to the milder wave of COVID-19 cases over the summer, according to Mason.
Mason said the uncertain state of the pandemic means that guidelines could change if the college or NCAA detects a massive flare-up of cases or a new, more dangerous variant.
“It’s an ever-evolving process,” Mason said. “[COVID-19 guidelines are not] hard and fast. It’s just where we are right now.”
Berry’s return-to-play protocols for student athletes, set with guidance from the department’s locally based team doctors, are in line with other SAA schools. Mason said these guidelines are similar to self-care recommendations for other, pre-pandemic illnesses.
“When our athletes are coming back to play, we just keep a special eye on them, making sure we’re not having things like fevers, breathing issues,” Mason said. “But that’s not abnormal for how we would care for them medically otherwise, either.”
No SAA conference schools are requiring all team members to provide proof of COVID-19 vaccination for the team to play, and neither do the non-conference institutions that Berry competes against. Mason said the school occasionally receives individual requests from institutions before games, asking for confirmation that that no members of the specific Vikings team to compete are COVID positive.
“As best as possible, unless someone actually is symptomatic or is positive, we are moving forward,” Mason said.
Some members of the women’s volleyball team contracted COVID-19 during the summer, but no players have tested positive during the school year according to Caitlyn Moriarty, head women’s volleyball coach.
The indoor sports team feels encouraged by the returning normalcy this year, Moriarty said. At their first tournament of this season, the team swapped benches and shook hands with opposing players for the first time since the pandemic.
“We appreciate them trying to ensure that our student athletes have a full, regular-season experience while also recognizing that [COVID-19] is very much out there,” Moriarty said. “Everyone’s doing the best that we can.”
So far, the team meets both of Moriarty’s requirements for playing a post-pandemic season: no COVID-19 restrictions with scheduling, including hosting tournaments and traveling; and no practices or games cancelled because of sick or quarantined players.
In addition to the 2020 season being shortened and moved to the spring, practice structure changed to accommodate working in small groups. Last season, the team resumed its typical training and practice schedule while remaining overly cautious.
During volleyball’s championship-winning 2021 season, Berry required athletes of indoor sports to wear masks unless actively playing, and coaches and spectators were required to mask at all times. Moriarty recalled the day Berry lifted its institution-wide mask mandate for the first time, during the volleyball team’s mid-season tournament last November.
“Right before the semi-final matches, literally in the middle of the tournament, we were able to tell spectators and all the other teams on Berry’s campus [that] the rules changed,” Moriarty said.
Continuing the mask optional policy could encourage more spectators to come, Moriarty noted, though some family and friends still choose to mask and isolate from big crowds, facilitated by the Cage Center’s large capacity.
Moriarty feels that the return-to-play protocols prioritize student athletes’ well-being and ability to play at peak performance but acknowledged that her team still has to be ready for anything.
“We’ve had to pivot for all sorts of reasons, especially the last two seasons,” Moriarty said. “Should anything major happens that affects the course of the season, we’ll just roll with it like we’ve been rolling with it.”
The men’s soccer team traveled to California at the beginning of September to play its first two games of the 2022 season. Head Coach Richard Vardy reported that Occidental College had posted COVID-19 guidelines inside sports facilities but did not seem to be enforcing them, while the University of La Verne had no posted guidelines.
Lax rule enforcement was the case in most places that the team traveled while in California, according to Vardy, including a professional soccer match.
“A lot of places seemed to have pulled back,” Vardy said. “All the places we went it was just normal.”
This was the men’s soccer team’s first long road trip since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Vardy said he tries to take the team on a long trip every few seasons for a team bonding experience, but the pandemic canceled a trip to Texas in 2020.
The team continued to have to wear masks at some games last season, to comply with either Berry or host team protocols. Now, however, Vardy said the men’s soccer program at Berry operates in nearly a pre-pandemic manner.
For soccer, an outdoor sport without close contact, practice and coaching structures remained the same throughout the pandemic, which provided players and coaches an outlet during the pandemic’s height, Vardy said.
A complete return to normal for these sports will depend on how states and individual institutions adjust their COVID-19 guidelines for travel and quarantining. Vardy said he expects COVID-19 guidelines to make a difference when considering long road-trips the next two years.
“If we did have someone test positive [in California], getting them home would have been stressful, and it might have been an extra cost to the budget,” Vardy said.
The men’s soccer team never experienced a large COVID-19 outbreak during the pandemic’s height and has not this year, either. Vardy said the case-by-case emphasis for handling COVID-19 return-to-play protocols is the most normal move the department can make.
“It’s such a fluid environment, which is a good thing,” Vardy said. “[They’re trying] to be as smart as possible but use as much common sense as possible too.”
Contracting COVID-19 is essentially off the minds of players and coaches on the Vikings football team, according to Luke Seale (21C), a graduate assistant and linebacker coach who played his senior season of football at Berry during the pandemic.
Normal operations for a football program include playing ten games in a regular season, holding in-person meetings, practicing as a full team and encountering no travel restrictions, all boxes ticked by the Vikings so far this fall, Seale said.
With the adjusted return-to-play protocols and the football team only encountering two to three isolated cases of COVID-19, Seale anticipates a post-pandemic reality for Berry’s football program.
“COVID’s pretty much over with, and I think we’re just past it and ready to move on,” Seale said. “[Hopefully] we won’t have to deal with anything like that again.”