With the COVID-19 pandemic came heartbreak for so many student-athletes who found themselves unable to compete, train or even interact with teammates and friends for an extended period of time.
But when UNCA leapt back into competition and training, teams did not hold back and managed to turn heartbreak into memorable experiences.
Despite the period without competition, despite the struggles to stay COVID-19-safe, despite the longing for some sort of normalcy in sports, the UNC Asheville athletic department managed to put together one of the more successful seasons of competition across all sports in more recent memory.
“For me, it has been great to see the student-athletes perform again doing the sport that they love, that brings them joy,” said Frederico Santos, UNCA volleyball head coach. “And for this opportunity, we all must be grateful for those who have made it possible for us to compete. The university administrators have done a phenomenal job creating conditions that are safe for all our students, faculty and staff.”
As the school year and athletic competition season comes to a close in the coming weeks, it’s notable to recognize and reflect on the many successes that have come out of strife for UNCA athletic programs.
As a result of the pandemic, fall sports teams saw seasons delayed until the spring and winter sports programs found themselves facing shortened, condensed schedules. Yet many UNCA sports teams came away with post-season awards and strong finishes in conference tournaments to cement a place in a strange but important year in UNCA athletic history.
But it was no easy task for anyone to grapple with as athletes and coaches had to get used to new protocols never before seen in sports: constant mask wearing in practice and some competitions, cleaning equipment after use, and social distancing at competitions and in training, to name a few.
“It was hard to adjust to wearing the masks while playing, but we got used to it,” said Peyton McClinton, a junior on the UNCA volleyball team. “We also all had to get in shape for the competition season, which we hadn’t done in over a year. However, I think we were all so excited to play again and that we worked hard and prepared for the season extremely well.”
For many, a return to competition in the winter and spring seemed so out of the ordinary. Phoebe Carles, a freshman on the UNCA golf team, said she had forgotten what competing felt like when she stepped back out on the golf course for the first time in a while this spring.
“I kind of forgot what it even felt like to compete in a tournament, so it was such a blessing that we were able to go and get back on the course,” Carles said.
UNCA athletics overcame these obstacles to post respectable season records.
There were plenty of memorable moments during the winter and spring seasons, like men’s basketball’s thrilling regular season upset over Winthrop, who went on to compete in the NCAA Tournament.
“To even get a chance to play, to be able to see the joy on their faces and just the excitement to win any game, much less a game over one of the few remaining undefeated teams in the country, was really cool for me as a coach to see,” said Mike Morrell, UNCA men’s basketball head coach, after the win.
There was also plenty of heartbreak, including men’s soccer team’s narrow loss in overtime to nationally-ranked High Point in the Big South semifinals, such a difficult way to end an improved season.
Heartbreak came in other forms as well. Many programs, including men’s basketball, women’s basketball and volleyball found themselves on temporary pauses due to COVID-19 related protocols that left them unable to practice or compete for periods of time.
But teams overcame these pauses and COVID-19 challenges to have prolonged periods of success. Men’s soccer, in particular, had perhaps its best season in recent memory, opening up the season with a win over Longwood and earning a coveted spot in the conference tournament that ended with the heartbreaking loss to High Point.
Other sports like the men’s tennis team found great success during the regular season, capturing the Big South regular-season championship thanks to the leadership of Big South Coach of the Year Tom Hand and numerous all-conference players.
With competitions still left on the calendar for track and field and baseball, who knows how many more wins and honors UNCA could come away with in the coming weeks.
Even with the challenges faced on the court, field, course and pool deck, UNCA athletes met difficulties outside of sports with great success. Despite far-from-normal academic work and classes that met online in-person, or both, UNCA boasted strong academic records across all sports teams.
The swimming and diving team won a Scholar All-American award for the 17th semester in a row from the College Swimming and Diving Coaches Association (CSCAA) and the women’s and men’s cross country teams won designation as All-Academic teams from the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association (USTFCCA). Women’s cross country posted the best collective GPA within the athletic department during the fall semester with a 3.53.
It’s a feat that UNCA Swimming and Diving Head Coach Elizabeth Lykins said aligns with the norm for her student-athletes. She said she, along with the athletic department, expects academic success.
“On our team, academic success is celebrated,” Lykins said. “High standards are the expectation, not the exception.”
Numerous athletes won designation as Scholar-Athletes of the Year from the Big South as well, meeting challenges brought about by the pandemic head-on. Grace Volk (volleyball), Charlie Morkel (men’s tennis), Lize-Alet Morkel (women’s tennis), and Taylor Durall (men’s soccer) all earned designation as the top student-athlete among all Big South competitors within their respective sports for the season, with more postseason honors still left to hand out in other sports. Countless other athletes earned spots on Big South All-Academic teams as well.
In and out of the classroom, UNCA student-athletes made this year one to remember, for many different reasons.
Though the pandemic made sure to make the 2020-21 athletic season a challenging one, it became one that celebrated new athletic and academic achievements in light of stressful times. Come fall, surely the UNCA athletic program will look to build on its success in a time of more normalcy and come away with wins, honors, and Big South championships.