Sports hit hard by effects of COVID-19

Roman Uglehus

Sports Editor  

ruglehus@unca.edu

Photo By Lauren Callaghan                              UNC Asheville volleyball player Molly Hackett passes the ball to her teammates during practice one morning.

 

From concert cancelations to restaurant closings, many aspects of what once was normal life have been put on hold due to the coronavirus. Sports are one of the many activities the novel coronavirus has impacted.

As coronavirus cases in America rose significantly in early March, many major professional sports leagues canceled or postponed their seasons.

The National Basketball Association announced the suspension of their 2019–20 season on March 11,  and one day after, Major League Soccer announced the delay of their 2020 season. While many of America’s major sporting leagues were able to resume their season later in the year, many minor sporting leagues and tournaments were canceled.

Asheville’s semi-professional soccer team Asheville City Soccer Club, founded in 2016, announced on March 23 their decision to withdraw their men’s team from USL League Two and their women’s team from the Women’s Premier Soccer League for the 2020 season.

Asheville’s minor league baseball team, the Asheville Tourists, canceled their season after Major League Baseball announced they would not provide players for the minor league teams.

All North Carolina high school sports were canceled in the spring as well, including the Western Mountain Athletic Conference, in which local Asheville high schools compete. Head coach of boys and girls soccer at local high school AC Reynolds, Patrick Gladys, said last springs cancelations were upsetting for his girls team and himself.

“It was really difficult because we had a really strong team and we had a bunch of seniors who were all starting and they played four years of soccer. We were actually, quite honestly, anticipating a state championship or at least competing for it. We just had no anticipation this was going to happen and then the rug got pulled out so. We kept holding out hope that we were going to get back there on the field but the situation just kept getting worse and worse and we all sort of came to the realization when the state pulled the plug on the season, that was it, so it hit them real hard,” said Gladys, who began his 21st year of coaching at Reynolds this year.

COVID-19 drastically affected and continues to affect collegiate sports as well.

The Big South conference announced the cancelation of all spring athletic activities on March 18, cutting the spring season short for many student athletes at UNC Asheville and throughout America. One group heavily affected by the spring season’s abandonment were the seniors.

“It’s not just the seniors, it’s certainly all the players on their respective teams. But certainly you understand from the senior perspective that this could be their final year,” said David Jandrew, UNCA’s  associate athletics director for external operations. “In the spring when it happened, the NCAA passed basically a waiver that said any spring athletes whose season was cut short, they didn’t lose a year of eligibility so they could come back. So we had for example a couple of baseball players who decided that they wouldn’t finish last year, they would come back for another year this year because they still had that one year of eligibility because their season was cut short last year.”

Although the NCAA passed this waiver, not all students will be able to return to finish their senior year, according to Jandrew. 

“We had other student athletes in the spring, for example golf, that they finished their senior year and some of them were ready to go to grad school, some of them had already lined up jobs. So we didn’t have any of our four seniors on the golf team decide to come back for another year. So it just varied from program to program,” the Hickory native said.

Not having athletic programs in the spring had negative impacts at many universities throughout the country. Many had to cut athletic programs due to the money lost from the cancelation of the spring season. Appalachian State University decided to cut men’s soccer, indoor track and field and men’s tennis due to their financial losses from COVID-19.

According to Jandrew, although UNC Asheville was also impacted financially, the university’s athletic department luckily did not have any major cutbacks.

“All universities were facing impacts financially from COVID back in the springtime. UNCA has, and I’ll knock on wood when I say this, we’ve been able to get through these times without having to do any cutbacks to scholarships. We haven’t had to do anything with the number of sports that we sponsor. All of our coaches and staff have been able to keep their positions. So we’re very fortunate that we have a lot of great support from the University, from the community. We’ve been able to not have to have some of the same impacts that Appalachian State did or East Carolina, who had to cut programs,” Jandrew said.

Currently, Jandrew helps to run UNCA’s Keep Climbing Campaign, a fundraiser that helps raise money for the university’s student athletes due to the financial losses suffered raise money for the university’s student athletes due to the financial losses suffered from COVID-19.

“Every school during this Covid time is having to monitor what they are spending and balancing their budget as best they can. For us this was just a campaign we wanted all of our folks to know no matter how many games we play this year, whether it’s an entire season for all 16 of our teams, or if we don’t play a single game, we’ve committed $2.7 million in athletic scholarships this year to our student athletes and we’re going to meet that. All of those student athlete scholarships that we’ve committed this year, we’re going to make sure that those dollars go to the student athletes. So that’s the crux of the campaign,” Jandrew said.

So far, the campaign has raised $22,035 and collected 169 donors with less than two weeks left for the fundraiser.

“Our goal is 275 donors. We’ve had a very generous challenge gift made by Ricky and Traci Silver, who are local donors and big bulldog fans. They said if we can get to the 275 donor goal, they’ll give us $25,000 to the athletic scholarship fund. The campaign runs for about another three weeks, it’s about a 3 1/2 week long campaign. September 10 is the end date,” Jandrew said.

After a long summer, fall student athletes of the Big South returned to their campuses hopeful for their fall seasons but were ultimately let down when the conference announced on Aug. 12, two days after classes started at UNCA, the fall season would be delayed.

Cecilia Stack, senior middle blocker of UNCA’s volleyball team, said how uncertain she and her teammates were feeling on the possibility of their season starting. 

“We had been getting mixed emotions and mixed answers from our coach basically all summer and the start of preseason date kept getting pushed back and kept getting pushed back. Then it ended up being ‘Oh, we’re gonna have to have COVID education before we even start’ and then we had mock schedules. It was just looking really bad, even when we got on campus, it was like we still didn’t know what was going to happen. So finding out the season was canceled was more inevitable than a surprise,” Stack said.

Jandrew said players and coaches were frustrated upon hearing the news of the fall season’s cancelation.

“It’s certainly disappointing for them to get that news when the Big south says ‘Hey we’re going to delay fall sports’ and that’s the term the big south is using, delay. We’re going to see what it looks like in the spring and see if we could possibly pick up the season at that time. There’s no guarantee but the term they used was delay,” Jandrew said.

Stack also said the news of the delay was disheartening but that the team is making positives out of it.

“I’d say overall, you know, we were pretty disappointed. I know most of us were really looking forward to getting back in the gym and having a season because in the fall it’s a lot more fun to have our matches than in the spring just because it’s what you look forward to all summer. But yeah I’d say overall disappointed and also still kind of expected. We’re all just saying how ready we are for the spring and how we’ll have more time to prepare,” said the Illinois native.

Despite the unfortunate news of the delay of their season, Jandrew said the athletes have had a great reaction.

“I think our athletes could see that something like this may be coming and they are honestly just a resilient group, they roll with it. I think anybody that plays sports sometimes has a background in them that allows them to kind of roll with something bad because if you’re an athlete you know there’s probably a time in a game where things don’t go your way and you’ve got to pick up and keep going. So I’m so impressed with how they’ve been able to handle this,” Jandrew said.  

Coaches and training staff feel the effects  not only of the delay but also the restrictions they have in their practices and coaching due to safety concerns caused by the pandemic. The volleyball team, for example, have their team split into two groups at practice. Students who live on campus and students who live off campus. Stack commented on how well the coaching staff has reacted to the fall season’s delay.

“Coach Santos and Jen have done a really great job working under the circumstances, and same thing with our athletic trainer and Cam, our weight trainer. Everybody’s been doing the best they can under the circumstances and we’re all really appreciative of even the little that we have gotten,” said the senior.

The beginning of the fall semester at UNCA usually means soccer games on Greenwood Field or volleyball matches in the Justice Center and student athletes coming in and out of the Justice Center for training. But due to the delay and restrictions, traffic is limited throughout the athletic complexes. According to Jandrew, there is a different feel for everyone in athletics. 

“It’s a strange experience. People in athletics are creatures of habit and so as you finish the summer you get into August, you’re gearing up, you’re ready to go for fall season, you know what to expect,” Jandrew said. “This is something that none of us have ever experienced so it’s hard not getting ready for soccer games and volleyball games but I think that’s probably the strangest thing. And then we don’t see as many people as we used to, we’re very careful about our safety protocols and so we don’t have as many athletes coming through buildings as we did in years past. It’s just a different experience for everybody and it’s something that thankfully our  student athletes have done a great job adjusting to.”

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