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Sports programs adapt to social distancing after COVID-19 cancels spring season

Chemeketa baseball team practices in March before social distancing restrictions were implemented. Photo by Colton Duda

Even after the coronavirus officially canceled the spring season on March 17, David Abderhalden, the assistant athletic director, is not worried about sports. 

Coaches are encouraged to send their athletes workouts they can do from home, but “that movement has less to do with preparing for next year and more about keeping them healthy emotionally,” Abderhalden said. “It’s making sure they were okay as people and as students before the athletic part.” 

The main priorities for student-athletes are to keep on top of their academics and mental health, he said. Considering the rigorous nature of athletics schedules, it’s a big adjustment for both spring and off-season athletes and coaches.

The coaches noted disappointment all around. Most winter sports squeaked through the end of their regular seasons, although the Northwest Athletic Conference canceled playoff tournaments scheduled in mid March. 

While the winter sports were able to finish most of their seasons, the spring season ended before it even began. Chemeketa’s program has three spring sports: baseball, softball, and women’s long-distance track. Two of those programs, softball and track, have coaches in their first year of coaching at Chemeketa. 

“To have this type of thing happen this first season is a little bit heartbreaking,” Kevin Witt, Chemeketa’s head softball coach, said.  

Team sports especially are hit hard by social distancing. In the case of softball, Witt noted, without being able to gather multiple players on a field to practice and critique technique, there’s not much the team can do to improve right now. 

“There’s a way to teach a sport and a way to play and that’s in close proximity to everyone involved,” Witt said.  

In the meantime, Witt has been checking up on his players to make sure they’re progressing in their academics, but many members of his team already had online classes before the pandemic. “The only thing taken away was softball,” he said. 

The long-distance track runners have a slightly better situation, Head Coach Elisabeth Saxe said. Runners only need a pair of good shoes to keep practicing, so she’s continued encouraging her runners to run four to five days per week. Saxe writes and sends workouts to them once a week. She uses a fitness tracking app to keep track of the runners’ progress. 

But for now, there’s still an adjustment period. 

All the coaches agreed the change in schedule has been difficult. Tight-knit teams miss spending time together, and while they utilize the Zoom platform to maintain contact, the virtual medium can only make up for so much of those missed social connections. 

In a normal season, coaches said, athletes spend at least four days a week training together; now that number is zero. 

“We’ve got them so regimented in how they do things, that this is a curveball,” Abderhalden said.  

Even coaches that are encouraging at-home training run into difficulties. Different athletes have access to varying levels of access to equipment at home. The coaches said for the moment, they’re trying to strike a balance between keeping athletes in shape and being flexible to the reality at hand. 

“I’m not putting a lot of pressure on them right now,” Saxe said. 

Abderhalden said he’s optimistic about athletes’ ability to roll with the punches the pandemic has doled out.

“I think athletes tend to be pretty adaptable, whether they realize it or not—they have that capability,” he said. 

However, the stakes of change are a bit higher for sophomore athletes. Many athletes plan on transferring to 4-year schools once their two years at Chemeketa end, which adds a layer of pressure. 

“We want to get the players not only academically but athletically able” to compete at 4-year schools, Witt said. 

The Northwest Athletic Conference, to which Chemeketa belongs, has adjusted eligibility requirements to take the pandemic into consideration, so student-athletes are working within those new requirements. 

So are coaches. Recruitment for next year has required a lot of creative problem-solving, the coaches noted. With the social distancing restrictions, the usual methods of recruiting new athletes—attending high school games, meeting with coaches, etc., are all inaccessible. While technology can help, Witt noted it has its limitations. 

“It’s hard to determine what type of athlete they are just by watching a video,” Witt said, both in terms of the ability of the player and the player’s compatibility with the existing team.

But recruiting is still happening, through Zoom, email and other online platforms, even if those aren’t ideal.

“We’re building and looking toward the future,” Saxe said.  

The new rounds of practice for next season begin in early August or early September, depending on the sport, and the coaches are hopeful the pandemic will be in retreat by that time. 

However, no one can know for sure; there’s a possibility of social distancing measures continuing through the summer. Some schools have already announced online classes for the fall. 

“Nothing is set in stone—as we’ve learned the hard way,” Witt said. “Being able to change and accept change is one of the biggest things I’ve learned.” 

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