Fall athletes discuss cancellation, spring preparations and roadblocks
After a week of practicing on and off, volleyball senior outside hitter and Powell, Wyoming native Kalina Smith braced for the decision that was coming.
Smith and five of her teammates sat in their shared living room, waiting for the announcement that would determine their season's fate.
Sam Glapinski, a Hartland, Wisconsin senior and a forward/midfielder for the field hockey team, was at the mall when it happened. She recalled her phone being buried in her purse as calls and texts flooded in from her coaches and teammates contacting her with the news.
When the Mid-American Conference canceled its entire fall schedule due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the two seniors were struck by waves of emotions.
"It definitely was difficult for all of us," Smith said. "At that point, we had no idea if we were even going to get a spring, so my mind was going a million miles an hour."
Glapinski was heartbroken; she was hoping for a fall season, as she has a commitment in the spring to fulfill before graduation. She remembered calling head coach Catherine Ostoich after finding out the season was off, wondering if there was a hope for a chance to still play in the fall. They both remained hopeful but knew it was not going to happen.
As plans for all MAC sports remained up in the air, CMU soon cleared its athletes to return to practice, given they follow COVID-19 guidelines such as wearing masks and maintaining contact lists. Both volleyball and field hockey wasted no time returning to business as usual.
Even though they did not have a season, they had lots of work to do.
"We took it upon ourselves to make sure that we implemented structure for the incoming freshmen, even though our season was unknown," Glapinski said. "We still had to implement some type of culture and be able to be there for these girls to keep their spirits high, and know that even moving forward that there may or may not be a season at all this year. The work still needs to be put in but we can all be there for each other while doing it."
Smith also was grateful to be back in the gym with her team. She was especially happy to have more time to build a rhythm and connections with freshmen players. However, she noted that COVID-19 was unpredictable and posed challenges for practice attendance.
In order to keep practicing, teams have to be very disciplined. There is no such thing as being too careful.
If players or coaching staff were feeling even mildly unwell — sore throat, stuffy nose — they could not go to practice. This left practices to often take place without a full team. Sometimes athletes were without coaches.
CMU's decision to allow their athletes to continue practicing paid off in September when the MAC announced volleyball, field hockey and men's and women's soccer would play a carefully-crafted spring season.
Volleyball's head coach, Mike Gawlik, is not one to cancel practice when lots of people aren't able to make it. Instead, he teaches his players to make due with what they have. Smith believes her team has adapted very well to this, and it could provide them — and all teams — with a serious benefit for games.
During a typical season, student athletes know the odds are that they could be called up to take the place of a starter at any given situation. COVID-19 has raised those odds, immensely.
"This fall has given us the opportunity to understand that everyone's role extremely important this spring. You never know when your name is going to get called," Smith said. "It's given people the opportunity to step up and learn how to compete in those situations. I feel like other teams have not been as lucky as we have been with that."
The NCAA also granted an extra season of eligibility for fall and winter athletes at the Division I level. Despite the excitement, these announcements posed some very stressful decisions for Glapinski, Smith and many more athletes who are nearing graduation.
Smith, who is graduating this spring, planned the rest of her classes last fall — when CMU introduced multi-semester registration — prior to the pandemic. She must complete her student-teaching requirement this spring. She will play this season and is grateful for the opportunity to play, but also decided that she would not take the extra eligibility.
Unfortunately for Glapinski, she found herself in the same situation, but will not play field hockey in the spring in order to finish her degree requirements. She also waived the eligibility and will be starting the nurse practitioner program at Marquette University in May.
Despite not being able to play for the spring season, Glapinski is excited for her teammates. She has continued to practice with them throughout the fall.
"It put an end goal to all of the work we were doing in terms of practicing," Glapinski said. "It all wasn't just for nothing. I know that it's definitely going to be a change of scenery — none of us have ever played in that type of weather before — but everyone's very excited. I think, overall, we're just really blessed and fortunate that we'll be able to play."
Both Glapinski and Smith expect the extra practice to pay off once the season begins. Volleyball's schedule is still in the works, but field hockey is expected to face off in March against Bellarmine in the season opener.
"I think that the fact that we took advantage of the opportunities that Central provided for us definitely has made a difference," Smith said. "I think that will show in the spring."