COVID causes changes to college athletes’ careers

Oak Harbor High School graduate Elena Flake, a member of the University of Nebraska rifle team, was just hours away from competing for the national championship in March when the tournament was canceled because of COVID-19.

“Having it ripped away from us at the last minute was heartbreaking,” she said.

Flake is one of a handful of Whidbey Island athletes competing in college sports who have had their athletic careers jumbled because of the coronavirus.

Elena Flake

Flake and her Nebraska teammates were ranked fourth in the country and had a legitimate shot at winning the Division I title when the National Collegiate Athletic Association pulled the plug on the finals.

“We had been at the tournament site all day,” Flake said. “When they canceled, it was you-got-to-be-kidding-me?”

“I actually found out on Facebook that it was canceled before the coaches did,” she added.

From the time the tournament was canceled until September, Flake was forced to practice on her own because the school’s athletic facilities were closed.

The Cornhuskers are back, following safety protocols, practicing four days a week and preparing for a new season of virtual matches. The first live match is set for Jan. 10 at Ohio State University.

When the season was canceled last spring, Flake wasn’t sure if the rifle team would survive. Budget cuts were looming because of the loss of revenue, especially when the Big 10 canceled football.

“It hit us a bit, being one of the smaller sports,” Flake said. “We were wondering what would they do with us. Would they eliminate us?”

When the football schedule was revived, so were the hopes of the minor sports.

“If we didn’t have football, we wouldn’t have much else,” Flake said. “Our coaches have done an awesome job advocating for us.”

“This whole experience has definitely been interesting,” she said. “Other than saying it is ‘interesting,’ it is not a feeling I can pin point.”

Charlie Patterson

South Whidbey High School graduate Charlie Patterson was 20 games into last spring’s baseball season at Bellevue University (Bellevue, Neb.) when everything came to a halt.

“A lot of people told me they were sorry when they heard the season was canceled,” Patterson said, “but there are a lot more important things going on with the virus.”

Patterson actually felt worse for his friends back at South Whidbey who had their entire baseball season canceled.

“It was hard on the seniors,” he said. “I absolutely felt bad for them.”

Patterson spent most of the offseason working out on his own in his backyard. He added that it was “nice to get a break for my body” from the normal rigors of team workouts.

Recently the team returned to practice, preparing for its fall season.

“I’m OK that we are open again; you just need to be smart,” he said. “It’s great to get back; we are learning not to take it for granted.”

While the team is back — it had played two of its six fall games at the time of the interview — things are definitely different, Patterson said.

“There are no high fives, no hugs,” he said. “It is important that everyone be safe and wear masks.”

He also noted that his teammates are more selfless.

To keep everyone safe and for the team to be able to continue competing, the players aren’t visiting local restaurants and bars.

“It’s baseball, 24-7,” he said.

Julian Inches

South Whidbey’s Julian Inches is a goalkeeper for the Linfield College men’s soccer team.

Fall is collegiate men’s soccer’s primary season, but Linfield was preparing for its short spring season when the virus hit and everything was canceled.

Concerns about COVID-19 have carried over to this fall, and the season has been pushed back until January.

The virus had a “drastic effect on our preparation over the summer,” Inches said. “It was difficult to get out as a team and simulate games. I had to work out on my own, which was OK.”

The team is working out again but practices are structured around COVID protocols, Inches said. “We can’t play 11v11; everything is with social distancing and with masks on.”

The team is slowing phasing in more group work, he said, but most of the drills are centered around individual skills.

The team revised it code of conduct, and the players buy-in to safety rules has been “huge,” he said. Leaving campus is frowned upon and the players are trying to limit their conduct with other people.

“If we do this right, we should be able to have a season,” he said. “Seeing others (football) play, it inspires hope.”

Lewis Pope

It’s been quite awhile since Lewis Pope played in a real basketball game.

The South Whidbey High School grad sat out last season at Central Washington University as a red-shirt, and this season, which would normally be starting up now, has been postponed.

“It’s been tough not being able to play organized basketball,” he said.

“From the basketball standpoint, I am just trying to stay positive,” he added. “I just keep working as if the season is going to be possible.”

Pope said everyone on the Wildcat squad it taking the situation seriously.

“We understand why it is happening,” he said. “The coaches are emphasizing staying safe and explaining the risks. We understand the need for guidelines.”

Right now the team is wearing masks in practice and staying six feet apart when possible. There is no scrimmaging.

For Pope, who hasn’t played in a game for 18 months, it is worth the trouble to help assure they will get to play games later this year.

For now, “every day I act like the season is a sure thing,” he said.

David Tillotson

David Tillotson, a 2011 Oak Harbor graduate, is experiencing the effects of COVID-19 on college athletics from the perspective of a coach.

Tillotson is a member of the University of California Santa Barbara baseball staff, handling the team’s analytics, tracking player development and bridging the gap between data and results.

The world of player development changed when the pandemic struck. The spring season was canceled and the opportunity for players to find summer teams was severely limited.

“Most of the guys were forced to go home and use whatever they could to stay in shape,” he said.

“We still haven’t had our first practice,” he said last week. “We hope to get back next Monday (Oct. 12).”

The athletic facilities are closed and there has been no physical contact with players. All team meetings have been virtual, where the coaches give the players hitting and pitching reports for development.

“We lost March through June to put in (offseason) work,” Tillotson said. “We would normally start back up in early September.”

The virus has also affected recruiting, and the staff has had to evaluate players through film and not in person.

All of the shutdowns and strict guidelines have hindered their production, he said, but “I’d rather get it right the first time than do it all over again.”

Sam Zook

Oak Harbor’s Sam Zook, a wrestler for Central College (Pella, Iowa), is bothered his college has closed its athletic facilities and locked down its athletes. As a result, he is not permitted by his coach (who is also the school’s athletic director) to compete even though in-person tournaments are being held elsewhere in the state.

He and two teammates have been working out on their own since July with “no hiccups.”

Zook understands that Central has to be careful, but he pointed out that the college is “not so cautious with other activities.”

“I have to live on campus,” he added. “The wrestling team is not allowed to leave campus, but other students can go visit Ames and Iowa City and other hot spots.

“I don’t want them coming back and spreading it all over campus. They even bring in recruits from other states who are not tested.”

Zook said he came to Central to compete, and not being able to “puts a damper on the whole experience.”

The Central football team is practicing every other day and plans to play games in March, Zook noted. He added, “Division I football is playing right now, and we are D-III wrestlers and left in the dust.”

Sarah Wright

Coupeville graduate Sarah Wright started fall softball practice this week at Sewanee: The University of the South (Sewanee, Tenn.). Normally, workouts would have begun in September; also, the team canceled its traditional “Play Day,” when it plays 21 innings in one day against local travel teams.

The current practice session will last five weeks.

“The only major change (to normal practice procedures) is the fact that we have to wear masks,” Wright said.

Students at Sewanee have the option to be on campus or take classes remotely. Those on campus are restricted to their own residence halls and rooms and are not allowed to leave the campus bubble. Students take weekly saliva tests, and social gatherings are limited. As a result, the college has had very few positive cases since August, Wright said, and only one student showed symptoms.

She doesn’t believe the return of D-I football this fall guarantees a softball season for Sewanee this spring.

“There are many differences between a D-I football program and a D-III softball — the biggest being money,” Wright said. “I truly believe that those larger schools are simply prioritizing the income that college football brings in, rather than the safety of their students.

“We do not have the resources to quarantine and safely travel in the same way as those schools. Additionally, being at an institution that values academics over athletics, the safety of students is a top priority, not athletics.”

Swanee was about half way through its 2020 season when it was canceled last March.

“We had just started our spring break and were about to travel to Myrtle Beach for a tournament when we got the news that the season was cancelled,” Wright said. “I was shocked and disappointed that we were ending early as we were a very young team and just catching our stride.”

One positive aspect of the season being stopped was that it gave the weary players a break, Wright said. The team included only nine players.

“Being the only catcher on the team, part of me was relieved,” Wright said.

“I caught between three and five games every weekend for one or two months. I know many teammates were in similar positions, so the shorter season was honestly needed to prevent further injury.”

Wright said Sewanee has a tough time recruiting (filling out a larger squad) because of its steep tuition and prestigious academic history.

Janae Payne

Personally, Janae Payne, a member of the Western Washington University volleyball team, found that the interruption caused by the coronavirus last spring allowed her time to “stop and self-reflect.”

The Oak Harbor High School graduate hopes she is doing her part to decrease the spread of the virus while keeping herself educated while spending time at home.

This fall’s volleyball season was postponed, and the Vikings are currently having modified practices in hopes they will get to play this spring.

At practice, the players are in groups of no more than five; at weight training, only one person is allowed at each rack. Face masks are required at all times.

“We’re not completely sure what a spring season will look like, and it is very dependent on the number of COVID cases in Washington and the other states in GNAC (Western’s athletic conference),” she said. “I have a mix of feelings about the season being canceled this fall.

“On the one hand, I’m sad that I am not able to have a full senior season for my last year at Western. But on the other hand, I am happy to have a little bit more time with my team and the volleyball program.”

Payne is appreciative of the Western staff.

“The athletic department, the trainers and coaches are working so hard to make sure that the student-athletes are still able to play and train after being out for so long,” she said. “Their hard work gives me hope for a spring season.”

Mary Johnston

The University of Washington’s women’s soccer team is living by the motto “Win the Wait,” according to Mary Johnston.

Johnston said the Huskies want to “utilize every second, no matter the circumstances” to improve.

When the wait is over, she added, “We will come out ahead and will have ‘Won the Wait.’”

The team is learning to deal with the situation and “rolling with the punches,” she said.

Typically the team follows a very tight training schedule throughout the year, the Oak Harbor grad said, knowing “when to be at our fittest.”

“But this virus has created a lot of unknowns about when the season will begin, so we have had to learn to always be ready physically and mentally,” she said.

When the University of Washington went entirely online last spring, the team replaced live practices with Zoom meetings.

“These practices were a time where we discussed our team culture, our team goals, worked on the mental side of soccer and went over the film,” Johnston said. “We were expected to treat these meetings like practice, and that meant wearing our practice uniforms, being fully engaged, having a water bottle and looking as if we were ready to play (i.e., wearing our hair in a ponytail).

“Although this may sound a little over the top or a little silly considering it was just a Zoom call, but I think it was a really good and necessary thing for us to feel a sense of normalcy as well as remaining professional during this extremely abnormal time,” she said. “This was a standard that we had as a team before the pandemic, and it was a standard we could keep despite not being able to practice normally.”

The Huskies are tentatively scheduled to play its postponed fall season sometime this winter or spring.

“Like everything else this year, things are subject to change and there isn’t a lot of concrete details surrounding this delayed season,” she said. “Having the season go differently than planned has definitely been a hard thing to accept as well as deal with.”

Johnston noted that they train eight months for their four-month season, and much of the training is “not super fun.” It is, however, worth it when the regular season rolls around.

“So, going through those eight months of preparing ourselves and getting to our peak fitness all to have our season postponed and possibly canceled a week before we were scheduled to start training was definitely a hard thing to accept,” she said.

College athletes are allowed to compete in only four seasons, Johnston added, and to have one of those canceled is “heartbreaking.”

“It is definitely encouraging to see football be able to play again; it gives all the other sports hope that our normal will be returning soon,” she said. “UW has worked so hard for all sports, not just football, to be able to be back on campus and train as normally as possible. And, as an athletic department, we all root for each other no matter the circumstances, so we are all very excited that football is able to play again.”

One positive from the break from soccer was giving the players more family time, Johnston said.

“Most of our summers and breaks are spent playing or training, and normally our time at home with family is limited,” she said. “So (being) forced to be home and not being allowed to train together allowed a lot of us to truly cherish our time home with families.”

Juliann Jansen

Currently members of the Northwestern College (Orange City, Iowa) track team are conducting outdoor workouts following health protocols — wearing masks while walking to and from practice, staying in specific training groups and conducting daily symptom and temperature checks, according to Oak Harbor’s Juliann Jansen.

“Our workouts, especially lifting, seem to be a lot more scheduled out than years prior,” she said. “Usually throwers take longer to practice than runners, so we would get in to lift a little later, but due to social distancing we have a set time that we are allowed to lift.”

This requires the throwers to cut their throwing practices shorter to make it to lifting on time, she said. “Hopefully as the season continues we’ll be able to fit in more throwing before we have to lift.

When the weather changes and the team heads indoors, Jansen expects the rules of social distancing to tighten.

Rather than working out with her team right now, Jansen is under quarantine. One of her roommates tested positive for COVID-19 last week. The ill student is now in isolation housing on campus.

“I am allowed to go outside for a walk as long as I am socially distanced and wearing a mask, but otherwise I am supposed to stay in my apartment,” Jansen said. She attends classes online.

“When I went into quarantine, we had just begun to start heavier lifts (in weight training), so I am missing out on that, and I will probably be behind by the time I get out of quarantine,” she said. “I am also not able to throw. The most I can do is drill in my bedroom, but I’m not too concerned about this since indoor season begins after Christmas break.”

Jansen finds it encouraging that some schools are playing football this fall.

“It was sad to see so many seniors end their season last year without getting closure from their last meet,” she said. “So it is nice to see that seniors this year will still get that chance.”

Jansen noted that some football games, however, are getting canceled.

“This makes me wonder if we are putting athletes at risk for a game, but overall I think the athletes on campus would rather take the chance of getting COVID versus not being able to play at all,” she said.

Northwestern has a small campus and enrollment, which makes it easier to control the use of health guidelines, Jansen said. Students are offered free COVID testing and encouraged to stay home and not fight through colds, to stay in their rooms and to social distance.

“I am happy to be able to continue to practice and watch my fellow Raiders compete, but I hope that it is not at the expense of our health, and so far it doesn’t seem to be,” she said.

As of now, Northwestern’s conference plans to hold spring track as scheduled. Fall sports championships, however, are postponed to the spring. This could cause some “hard choices for multi-sport athletes to make,” Jansen said. “My throwing coach is also the offensive line coordinator for football, so I expect that he will not be as available to track as we would like him to be.”



Julian Inches. (Photo courtesy of Linfield College Athletics)

Julian Inches. (Photo courtesy of Linfield College Athletics)

Julie Jansen. (Photo courtesy of Northwestern College Athletics)

Julie Jansen. (Photo courtesy of Northwestern College Athletics)

Lewis Pope. (Photo courtesy of CWU Athletics)

Lewis Pope. (Photo courtesy of CWU Athletics)

Mary Johnston, right. (Photo courtesy of UW Athletics)

Mary Johnston, right. (Photo courtesy of UW Athletics)