Editor's Note: This article appeared in The Eagle's October 2020 virtual print edition.
When it comes to the effect the coronavirus pandemic has had on college athletics, the primary focus has been placed on NCAA Division I programs who have had their seasons canceled or delayed. However, they are not the only athletes stuck in “wait and see” mode.
The Club Sports program at American University is home to 28 teams, offering everything from baseball to ultimate frisbee for students interested in starting up a new sport or continuing with one they’ve played before. But in March, the school cut the spring season short and sent the student body home. Seven months, no plan and no fall season later, students are still uncertain about the immediate future of club sports.
For Lucy Elliott, a senior and captain for the women’s ultimate frisbee team, the cancelation of the team’s spring season stung the team’s seniors the most. Spring is usually their most competitive season, and it was an upsetting missed opportunity to compete in sectionals, regionals and potentially nationals, if they advanced far enough.
“AU pretty consistently makes it to regionals, but not nationals,” Elliott said. “So that was very upsetting for our seniors to not be able to compete and see how well we could have done through spring last season.”
The ultimate frisbee team was only able to compete in one of their three regular season tournaments, a home tournament that was hosted on the National Mall.
“That was a great tournament,” Elliott said. “We got second place at it, and we were definitely looking forward to an upward trajectory.”
AU’s club women’s rugby team was also only able to compete once before the University went fully online, playing one game against Catholic University that they won 39-5. Senior and team President Gillian Chestnut remembers when AU first made classes online for just three weeks and members still had hopes of coming back to campus and competing in April.
“First, it was a lot of planning, because that would cut out a chunk of our season and we would still have stuff when we came back,” Chestnut said. “So it was very much ‘will it be safe by then? Will we still want to have a season?’ It was very stressful, with a lot of planning and not having any details because club sports didn’t have anything to give us.”
With the spring season cut short, the waiting game to see how the fall season would play out began. It took until July 30 for AU to announce it would go fully online for the fall semester, two weeks after AU and the Patriot League decided to cancel the fall sports season. For both rugby and ultimate frisbee, planning for the fall semester without knowing what was coming took a lot of preparation.
A seasonless semester has led to innovation from each team’s leadership as they look to keep up team camaraderie and stay fit in case the sport does eventually come back. This includes Zoom practices, strategy sessions and track workouts with nearby teammates.
Kaitlyn Hepburn, a senior and one of the captains of the rugby team, has prioritized keeping rookies engaged with the team. For a lot of them, this was their first time playing this new, high-contact sport. And after learning the ins and outs of the game in the fall, the spring season would be their time to show what they’ve got.
“For a lot of the fall season, they were learning as much as they could, but the real time to shine for most rookies comes in the spring because you’ve been practicing so long and you’re ready finally,” Hepburn said. “It hurt because I remember being a rookie, and you try so hard to learn a new sport, and that’s like your time to shine. They didn’t get as much of that.”
While keeping the current team together throughout uncertainty has been a huge priority, recruiting, and gauging interest has also been important, even with no clear guarantee of when the next game or tournament will take place.
But even with attempts at keeping team chemistry up through virtual events and practices, players still feel that the old community aspect of the team is missing.
If there is a chance of restarting in the spring, it may not be the same for all sports. For a sport like ultimate frisbee that is considered low or no contact, they could have a chance to restart their season earlier than others. Adding the Oct. 26 announcement, which detailed the new spring 2021 class plan, the possibility of sports returning in the spring has heightened.
A physical sport like rugby, however, would likely be much harder to pull off than others if a restart were to happen next semester. But there is still cautious optimism and enthusiasm to get back on the field and compete with high levels of intensity.
“USA Rugby, which is our overarching rulemaker, has put out rules and guidelines on social distancing and what practices should look like,” Hepburn said. “We are going to be excited if we go back, but we have to keep in mind what our reality is and how we have to function in that contact.”
No matter what the immediate future holds for AU’s Club Sports programs, the impact they have had on the players who have been a part of their community is clear.
“I haven’t even thought about it as club sports,” Hepburn said. “Since the beginning of my time at AU, 90 percent of my friends are in rugby. It’s that close of a community. Those are the people that I found. No matter what situation we’ve been in, we’ve always been so supportive and interconnected. It’s honestly the coolest thing I’ve ever done.”