Club sports adjust to spring and summer challenges, brace for fall season impacts

by Ethan Strauss and William Owen | 5/8/20 2:05am

Women's ultimate frisbee is one of many club sports teams that lost the chance to compete this spring.
Source: Courtesy of Hannah Marr

Varsity athletes aren’t the only ones who lost their spring season. Club sport athletes also missed out on proper ends to their careers and clarity about the future of their teams. Over 2,000 undergraduates — just under half of the undergraduate student body — participate in club athletics, according to associate athletic director for club sports and intramurals Heather Somers.

Some teams with fall and winter seasons had already punched their tickets to would-be national tournaments this spring before they were canceled. During their regular seasons, men’s club hockey, fencing, figure skating, club tennis and men’s and women’s club volleyball all qualified to compete on the national stage, according to Somers. For those who earned their place in national championships, the news that club competition would not resume was particularly painful. 

“I think Nationals for the team and for me has always been a time where we really bond,” club tennis captain Zack Johnson ’20 said. “We live together in the same place for five days and just have fun in Orlando, Florida.” 

Johnson’s co-captain, Nicole Tiao ’20, agreed, adding that “Nationals is consistently ranked in my favorite memories, so I think not really getting closure … it's a really odd feeling.”

Many other club teams did not even get the chance to compete for a championship berth, and many student-athletes feel as though they lost the chance to grow as a team in the absence of the spring season. 

“I think it’s really tough, particularly for the ’23s on the team this year who didn’t get to have that defining spring season,” women’s ultimate frisbee captain Hannah Marr ’20 said.

Spring break training trips — an annual tradition for many clubs — were also canceled this year. In the past, those trips were a chance for teammates to connect with one another, grow closer and unwind away from campus. On teams that are as much peer groups as they are athletic clubs, that opportunity to bond is crucial to students’ club experience.

“It’s just an awesome time for everybody to get to know each other better across the program,” Marr said. “Spring break is when those connections are solidified for the freshmen, at least. That’s a really important part of our program bonding.”

Some club teams, like men’s rugby, normally remain active over the summer term. The team usually hosts a development camp — a crucial tool for recruiting prospective players — but captain Mason Koch ’20 said that the camp had to be canceled this year. Still, Koch is confident that future team leaders will find a way to continue developing interest in the sport. 

“We just had our elections to put in that new leadership for the ’21s class ... so I think they are pretty well-equipped to handle whatever comes their way,” Koch said.

The looming question on club leaders’ minds is how this term will change their teams’ futures. 

“I think there could be different levels of how people view the sport since about half of our team was freshmen this year,” Marr said. “They didn’t get to have a spring season, which is our most intense, competitive season.” 

Many club teams have continued to stay in contact over the spring term, utilizing Zoom to keep in touch virtually and discuss off-season training. 

“Each week, we send out a team challenge for everybody to do and report the results from that — whether it be training or conditioning based or a mental game prep quiz,” Koch said.

Although the future remains uncertain, many teams are concerned that the impacts of the virus will linger into next fall. Any potential social distancing requirement or on-campus enrollment limit would have wide-ranging impacts on Dartmouth club sports.

“We’ll leave that to the experts to make all those big decisions, but I think it will definitely look different,” Somers said. “What that looks like, I don’t think anybody knows yet.”

For some sports, social distancing requirements could completely upend typical fall activities. Tryouts — an essential process for many club sports — would be impossible to conduct. Bringing a large number of potential new team members together would present a major health risk, and shifting tryout dates to later terms would be difficult.

“We don't have the indoor court capacity to hold tryouts if it was in the winter,” Tiao said. “I don’t think we could, and there is literally no way for us to social distance during tryouts, so we’d have to do something totally different.”

With the College’s decision date for many of the fall’s potential campus restrictions pushed back until late June, all that most teams can do is continue on as normal. 

“[Fall impacts] are something we are sort of preparing for,” Koch said. “Right now, we are full steam ahead as if there were to be a fall season regardless.” 

Eventually, COVID-19 restrictions will be lifted, and club sports will return to normalcy. But for the seniors whose careers were cut short by the cancellations, the damage has been done. Many left for spring break unaware that their time representing Dartmouth in their club sport was over. 

Tiao said that she will miss the community feel of club sports the most.

“I made some of my closest friends through tennis for sure, and some of my favorite memories,” Tiao said. “It's been a huge part of our lives every term, so it's a really odd feeling to have just kind of disappeared from it.” 

Koch said that he is looking forward to maintaining the close bonds he has with his teammates for the rest of his life. 

“I know that whenever I end up back on campus ... they’ll probably be there too at the clubhouse with me watching the boys go at it on the field,” Koch said. “Just kind of having that background and being connected to something so big and special beyond just me was pretty huge.”

There will be opportunities to reconnect with teammates in the future. Many seniors have already expressed interest in returning for Homecoming, but the lost chance to say goodbye to such an important aspect of their Dartmouth experience still hurts for many.

Johnson fondly recalled how the seniors welcomed him his freshman spring through “really cute speeches about how much the team had meant to them.”

“It's weird to not be able to give my little speech,” Johnson said. “But hopefully, just because we won't be playing tennis doesn't mean we won't still be friends.” 

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