There’s a new opponent this year: COVID-19

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Media: Christine Park

Usually, my teammates and I are able to shake off a defeat and bounce back in our next game. But the loss of our fall season to COVID-19 was like no other. It meant there was no “next time.”

Jillian Kay is a middle blocker for the Emerson women’s volleyball team. Kay is a rising sophomore studying broadcast journalism.

When COVID-19 cases first surged in March, I had no idea how much the virus would challenge my athletic identity. Never did I think my fall volleyball season or triumphant return to campus would be affected. Like many of my classmates, I thought the whole thing would blow over in a couple of weeks.

I wish I could have told my March self just how wrong I was. 

 It’s no secret that COVID-19 continues to attack millions of U.S. citizens’ physical, mental, and financial stability. For the most part, I’ve been blessed to avoid its clutches. However, I can’t say the same for my fall volleyball season. We just came off a 20-8 record year—the team’s best since joining NEWMAC. Not only that, we were the team to beat after defeating nationally ranked Babson College and making an iconic playoff run. My 13 built-in best friends and I were ready to take on any team that came our way.

The only opponent we weren’t expecting was, of course, COVID-19. 

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 On July 14, we officially discovered there was no chance of a fall 2020 season through an email from our head coach, Ben Read. The news was devastating. Usually, my teammates and I are able to shake off a defeat and bounce back in our next game. But the loss of our fall season to COVID-19 was like no other. It meant there was no “next time.”

With this realization, my athletic identity felt stolen. I have three more years to compete, but my heart grieves knowing that I may never get to play with my senior teammates again. It would be one thing if I wasn’t so close with them, but being a middle blocker playing with two senior pin hitters makes this that much more heartbreaking. 

For those of you who don’t know volleyball, here’s a quick lesson. The middle blocker plays from—shocker—the front center of the court with help from both the left and right players. We work in sync and instinctively know each other’s every move. Given this bond, it is unimaginable that both sides of my heart on the court are now gone. This loss alone feels like the hardest to bear.

 After campus closed, going from seeing my teammates every day in person to only on a computer screen once a week was just as difficult. I’m someone who enjoys a consistent routine. Weekly team Zooms became my only constant in the world that changed rapidly around me. Whether it be having a virtual recruit “visit,” chatting with our trainer and sports psychologist, or personally checking in with each other, there was an unspoken agreement that we’d find any way to keep in touch.

We genuinely care about each other’s well-being. It doesn’t matter who our starters are, the bench is just as involved. We play every game for each other. Whether we’re dancing on the sidelines or screaming until we lose our voices, we are not a team that gives up.

In fact, we laugh in the face of adversity. In November, we defeated both MIT and Wellesley in 5-set, nail-biting matches. Looking back, those upsets were precursors to the battle that was only beginning, except this time against a deadly virus we had little to no power over. 

As months crept by and blended together, school officials continued to discuss the plan for the fall semester. Our coaching staff made sure to put our mental health first by always keeping us informed to the best of their ability. They shared as much as they knew the second they learned it. Then it happened. The college joined other NEWMAC schools in canceling fall sports. Our worst fears became a reality.  

To provide a safe space for us to ask any lingering questions, our coach scheduled a Zoom call that day. I will always remember the raw despair I felt during that meeting. The wound was fresh. No one wanted to speak because it didn’t feel real. No one had any questions because it hurt too much to ask. I had always heard that life could change in an instant. But it’s one of those things that you just don’t believe until it happens to you. Where could we possibly go from here?

 My goal is forward. 

In the spring, we normally prepare for fall competition with open gym practices and heavy conditioning. Instead, there is talk about having a spring season to replace the fall. This means we would play a few games, wear masks at all times, and receive COVID tests constantly. It’s not an ideal situation, but if it means we can safely experience a sense of athletic normalcy, it’s worth it. At the very least it provides a sense of hope—especially for the seniors who want nothing more than to play at least one last game. We would be so grateful now that we know just how precious every moment is. We would not take any second of it for granted.

At the moment, we’re stuck in the middle of an intense match against COVID-19. The virus has the lead, but we have the heart. All that’s left to do is take it point by point, be disciplined, and defeat this unexpected opponent.