by, Pete Janny, Sports Editor
The groundhog may have hinted at six more weeks of winter, but that’s not going to stop student-athletes and coaches from preparing the spring sports season that opens on March 6. That’s because they’ve been through enough doom and gloom already.
Several of Manhattan’s 21 varsity teams felt a weight lifted off their shoulders after the MAAC announced plans for a spring season on Jan. 20. The sports that will be featured this spring in the MAAC are soccer, volleyball, water polo, cross country, track & field, baseball, softball and lacrosse — the first two of which are being carried over from the cancelled fall season. Meanwhile, the swimming and diving season is still being sorted out on the heels of a recent announcement about the MAAC Swimming and Diving Championships being cancelled.
While technically the saga started in March 2020, with the termination of the college basketball tournaments and the onset of lockdowns around the country, the road would soon become even more difficult for student-athletes in July when the fall season was officially scrapped.
The ensuing months saw many of those fall sports, like soccer and volleyball, feel a sense of neglect again as the NCAA’s focus turned to their money-making sports like football and soccer.
“It is the goal of the MAAC to ensure it recognizes a MAAC champion in each sport and it will review possible championship formats for the fall sports in accordance with evolving state and local regulations,” MAAC Commissioner Rich Ensor said after the conference opted out of playing the fall season.
Making the situation even more frustrating for Manhattan and other MAAC schools was that some conferences around the country actually managed to play those same forgotten sports — all the while the student-athletes in the MAAC were consigned to training. At the time, the impetus for that unfortunate decision was probably made on the basis of reason and scientific data. After all, the MAAC resides in the northeast, which had been and still is one of the most affected regions by the COVID-19 pandemic, and so the risk of playing was higher. Still, that’s not to say the conference undoubtedly made the right decision when looking back.
In the moment, it’s always easy to hedge bets, and in the case of the pandemic it’s virtually impossible to predict what happens next. But look no further than how the MAAC has prioritized the basketball season — there have still been COVID-related stoppages, but that hasn’t cancelled the season. On top of that were the concerns about the spread of the virus in the cold of the winter months, which, of course, coincides with the basketball season too.
Almost ironically, student-athletes will take the field this spring just as they could have done in the fall when COVID-19 numbers in the northeast were the lowest they had been since the start of the pandemic. For instance, on Sept. 19, the last starting date MAAC officials committed to before announcing cancellation, the seven-day moving average for confirmed cases in New York State stood at 451. In comparison, the seven-day moving average for NYS as of Feb. 9 was 4,395 new cases, with the start of the spring season only a few weeks.
The discrepancy in data from the fall to the present is hard to ignore; at this point there’s nothing left to do but remain hopeful that the numbers take a steep dive before the start of the season.
When coaches and players speak, there’s not as somber a tone like there was back in the fall now that there’s finally light at the end of the tunnel. From the beginning, the logistics were always out of the control of coaches. Now, they’re just happy to have the chance to play in the spring, regardless of what could’ve been done differently in the past.
“We’re just so fortunate to be playing,” men’s soccer coach Jorden Scott told the Quad. “The schedule’s a little whacky. In the beginning we play one game a week and at the end it’s a little cramped but we’ll take anything we can get as long there’s something to play for. It doesn’t matter the number of games it’s just the idea of winning the MAAC Championship in any format and that’s what our guys are motivated by.”
The last time Scott coached his team in an actual game was Fall 2019, which is by far the longest he’s been away from the grind of coaching. Since then, he’s also endured immense turnover on his roster due to players graduating and others moving to the professional ranks — such as was the case for Francois D’ulysse, who departed the program earlier than expected after getting drafted 51st overall by the New England Revolution in the MLS SuperDraft.
Nowadays, Scott and other coaches are dealing with the challenge of developing team chemistry for the start of the season, despite limited practice time.
“The challenge for our program is, can we have that consistent turnover and be still able to compete at the top end of the MAAC? We think we have the latent, but we’re going into a huge unknown because we don’t know who we’re playing against, we have no video footage of anybody, so there’s just so much unknown.”
Men’s lacrosse head coach Drew Kelleher was in the midst of his team’s season last spring when the onset of the pandemic led to an abrupt ending to all of it. Suddenly there were no more lacrosse games to be played, and instead Kelleher’s focus turned to bidding farewell to his seniors far earlier than expected.
Almost a year later, his program is retooled and features a combination of graduate students playing out their final season of eligibility and a freshman class that is nine players deep. Kelleher also got to witness one of his own players turn professional when Kelson Borisenko was drafted in the fourth round, 64th overall by the Saskatchewan Rush in the 2020 National Lacrosse League Draft.
All the recent activity around the program suggests that better days may be on the horizon after a year filled with constant uncertainty.
“Our goals this year are as high as they have ever been,” Kelleher said in reference to the ultimate goal of winning a MAAC Championship. “We think we have a strong core of leaders that not just want to win but are willing to do whatever it takes.”
In the northeast, the sight of no fans at games has become the norm during the pandemic. However, that looks to be coming to an end sooner rather than later, at least in professional sports, in light of Governor Cuomo’s announcement that sporting venues will start to welcome fans back on Feb. 24 with strict limitations.
The MAAC, however, has yet to indicate when fans can return and have already extended that policy through the end of the MAAC Basketball Tournament, which will take place again in Atlantic City from March 9-13.
“Honestly I think all that stuff is the icing on the cake,” Scott said in regards to the possibility of there being no fans allowed at games. “I think the fact that we’re just able to throw on a uniform and go out and play is rewarding and motivating in and of itself.”
The wait has been long enough for these programs. In all likelihood, it will feel equally weird and refreshing once they’re officially back doing what they do best. But rest assured, once the first goal is scored or the first home run is hit, the fury of competition will return. Because as badly as the players and coach will want to stay safe, they just as badly will want to win.