Winter sports face an uncertain future amid COVID surge

The+athletics+departments+partnership+with+PlaySiight+will+improve+quality+of+streams+and+film+for+all+sports+including+the+production+at+the+Bobbi+Brown+and+Steven+Plofker+Gym.

Photo: Beacon Archive

The athletics department’s partnership with PlaySiight will improve quality of streams and film for all sports including the production at the Bobbi Brown and Steven Plofker Gym.

By Tyler Foy, Sports Editor

The 2021-22 season for the Emerson Lions’ winter sports teams started off bright with electrifying performances in front of the home crowd at the Bobbi Brown and Steven Plofker Gym, but now face a similar uncertainty when their seasons were stripped away a year prior.

With the college weathering an unprecedented surge of COVID-19 cases fueled by the spread of Omicron, the status of several winter sports has been called into question. As Emerson’s men’s volleyball and basketball teams prepare for their season, college officials are working to navigate an increasingly uncertain landscape—while stressing that teams will have to adapt to state, college, and conference guidelines.

“It hasn’t been any different than what we’ve been dealing with in the last year and a half,” said Athletic Director Patricia Nicol. “We’re pivoting probably a little more just because of the rate of infection. But we’re doing our due diligence, we’re doing what we’re supposed to do, and the coaches and the athletes are following all the protocols.”

In order to ensure the health and safety of players at home games, there are currently no external spectators allowed to attend the game. The same rule had been in force at the beginning of the fall semester, only to be reversed after the men’s soccer Senior Day on Oct. 9.  

For many players on these teams, the prospect of playing without fans has made the outlook of another season under COVID even worse. Spectators play a massive role in team sports and can affect how players perform in the game.

[elementor-template id="60935"]

“Volleyball is a very energy-based game,” said sophomore Neiko Pittman, a middle/opposite on the men’s volleyball team. “The energy of everyone and energy on your side is critical to how well you perform. Not having people in the gym is going to be very impactful on how successful we are.”

Bill Gould, head coach of the women’s basketball team, said spectators are key motivators for players. He noted that as the Omicron surge continues, the lack of people in the stands could potentially result in family members missing the opportunity to witness the final moments of their children’s athletic careers.

“For a lot of upperclassmen, this could be their last year of actually playing organized sports in their entire life,” said Gould. “Parents like to go to those and they’re not allowed to. It’s different from watching it on a stream. They want to be a part of their kids’ final competitive season and they can’t.”

Other athletes, like senior men’s basketball guard Nate Martin, are focusing less on the ongoing crowd restrictions and more on continuing to display a positive performance on the court.

“Some people get a lot of energy from the fans in the crowd, but personally I’m not really too worried about it,” Martin said in a phone interview. “We practice every day. You get into the gym and work out by yourself.”

“I’m pretty used to it, but I think some people definitely get energy from the crowd,” he added. “It just kind of depends on who you are.”

The policy, which is slated to be reviewed on Jan. 24, reflects the athletic department’s “day-by-day” reaction to the state of the pandemic, Nicol said.

“We just have to react and respond to the situation that is in front of us every day,” Nicol said. “We are having a season, we have had to have some postponements, whether it’s from Emerson or our opponent, and we’re just gonna look to reschedule when we can.”

The prospect of postponed seasons might also draw comparisons to last season, when winter sports were also shut down due to a previous COVID-19 surge.

“It makes me very nervous,” Pittman said. “I lost my last season as well as most of my senior high school season to COVID.” 

The recent spike has created a disruption in routine for many players and changed athletes’ ability to keep their bodies in shape over the winter break.

“In a normal year the kids go home with a workout packet,” Gould said. “They say to lift X number of times, do some cardio X number of times, get into the gym and get shots off because when we come back, we’re going to jump right into it. That’s a normal year.”

Each player faced a different set of limitations on resources, such as closed gyms or lack of facilities. This made it difficult for coaches and players to create a proper routine during the break.

“We have to start totally from scratch,” he said. “We almost have to just go on the assumption that no one is really going to be able to do anything now.”

Sophomore Luke Roehm, an outside hitter for the men’s volleyball team, tested positive during his time at home. He said he is, in a strange way, appreciative that it occurred when it did. 

“I am more fortunate to have it before my season,” Roehm said. “Hopefully I get over the virus and will have antibodies to be more protected when we travel to other schools. I can feel less of a liability for my team.”

Student-athletes have a lot on the line in the case they test positive—which would entail not only a five-day quarantine, but a bar from participating in team activities for an additional five days. Matches can also be postponed due to COVID protocols.

“I definitely think about COVID all the time, because I don’t want to be the reason that we are unable to play,” Pittman said.

As much as COVID has continuously inserted its presence into people’s daily lives, Martin is trying to not let it impact the way he plays basketball. He said he is staying cautious but is only attempting to focus on what he can control.

“I’m trying not to overthink it too much,” Martin said. “I feel like if a game is gonna be canceled, that’s not something that I have control over. I decided to do what I can, be careful outside, and just really appreciate my time that I do get to go out and play.”

The life of the 2021-22 season relies heavily on the way other institutions within the New England Women’s and Men’s Athletic Conference react to the virus. Nicol said she wouldn’t be surprised if one institution canceled its season but the NEWMAC continued to play. She also said they have to respond based on the scenarios at Emerson and are staying hopeful for a successful winter and spring sports season.