Katherine Merisotis/The Bates Student
It has been nearly a full year since Bates College sent its students home as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. While this time around Bates is unlikely to close, virtually no facet of life at the college has been left unscathed, including athletics.
After a safe fall season of athletic practices, winter athletics are attempting to replicate the success of the fall, albeit in very different circumstances. Unlike the fall, many of the winter sports are indoors, which makes pandemic norms like social distancing and masking that much more difficult.
As in the fall, Bates is utilizing a three-stage approach in order to safely and effectively return teams to practice. However, unlike the fall, Bates plans to try and speed up the movement to each stage, with the goal of moving to a new phase each week.
The first stage allows for only one hour of practice at a time. Depending on the facility, teams may not be able to operate at full capacity initially. The second stage, which will likely be implemented beginning next Monday, will allow for one and a half hours of practice each session.
While coaches are grateful for the opportunity to hold practices, the indoor nature of many of the winter sports requires additional creativity.
Men’s basketball faces some of the more difficult adjustments to practices. Due to the poor circulation in Alumni Gym, practice sessions are severely limited in terms of numbers that the team is allowed to have on the court at any one time.
Senior captain David Akinyemi spoke on some of the challenges this semester might hold for his group: “A challenge I think we might face is just getting used to playing in masks. We just started using them so it is a bit bothersome at times, but I think with time we will all get used to it.”
The pandemic’s biggest impact on sports aside from cancellation of competition, particularly for team-centric sports like basketball, has been on team chemistry both on and off the court. Without the ability to normally interact with their teammates in both realms, both basketball teams are that much more challenged to develop those relationships.
Akinyemi mentioned that, despite the challenges involved with practicing in Alumni Gym, “We are all excited to see each other again and play together, and sometimes that excitement moves my social distance from 6 ft to a little under 6 ft.”
Co-captain Sunny Piplani ’21, despite the unfortunate reality of COVID-19, also echoed Akinyemi’s excitement.
“With it being our last year, it’s great to still be able to get in the gym and hoop with the family. While it isn’t how we hoped our last season would end, getting to still practice and scrimmage with the guys has been fun and also a great way to get away from all the craziness that comes with Covid,” Piplani explained.
However, there is a silver lining to the coronavirus restrictions on campus. With the limited numbers allowed at practice, both teams have a tremendous opportunity to develop players on a much deeper individual level. With fewer players to focus on during any given practice session, the ratio of players to coaches is improved, thus giving coaches additional time with each athlete that they may not have been able to have previously.
Co-Captain Billy Lahart ’21 also saw plenty of silver linings to be had in the modified practices.
“Any chance to get repetitions in together as a team is making us better. We’re confident that we can still make this season special. By the time things are business as usual again, our younger guys will be hungry and eager to get to work again, uninhibited by restrictions,” Lahart explained.
Women’s basketball also faces many of the same challenges as the men’s program. Despite the potential challenges, Head Coach Alison Montgomery was optimistic about the season.
“Like many students and members of our community, we are just excited to have the opportunity to be together in person, despite all the limitations and modifications,” she said. “There is a lot that can be gained as a team during this time — the physical, mental and emotional outlet of practicing a sport we are passionate about is so important as we all navigate a myriad of challenges.”
For the women’s basketball team, the opportunity to practice and gather as a group represents an outlet for both Coach Montgomery and her athletes to escape the hectic, pandemic-restricted world.
“We are finding creative ways to safely engage in some physical activity and generate positive camaraderie, which are both so important as we all battle through the sometimes overwhelming challenges that the pandemic presents,” she said.
That camaraderie is what so many coaches on campus this semester and last sought to bring to their teams. With the pandemic restricting the ability for people to socialize properly, team chemistry has been extremely hard to synthesize. Practice, in that sense, represents the best opportunity for teams to get together, work on their shared craft, and enjoy each other’s company.
“Our team is a family, and we are finding strength and joy in simply being grateful for each other and any chance we have to be on the court,” said Coach Montgomery.
Indoor Track & Field
The men’s and women’s indoor track & field teams also face a variety of challenging circumstances. While the indoor track is a large space, the fitness center takes up a significant amount of the room’s capacity, along with the tennis courts on the infield that can be used for tennis, soccer, lacrosse, or any other sport.
The men’s and women’s teams will split time in the facility each week, with each team holding alternating practice schedules. Both groups will only be allowed to practice with 50% of their team at a time, meaning that there will be at least two practice sessions each day.
Women’s head coach Jennifer “Jay” Hartshorn explained that due to the challenges of using the indoor track currently, the women’s team plans to “get outside as soon as possible.”
Like many other teams on campus, community and chemistry within the team is of the utmost importance right now.
“The hardest part of having a big team right now is that indoor space limits don’t allow us to all practice at the same time,” she said. “Currently, we are focused on building the community of our team.”
Despite the challenges though, Coach Hartshorn hopes that there may be better days ahead, and perhaps even a chance of competition that many coaches would love so much to have.
“If we are lucky enough to compete this spring, I feel like we will be in a good place to begin daily practice and increase our training intensity.”
Blessed with the fact that their sport is one of the few that naturally functions outside, the nordic ski team will not face too many changes in their day-to-day practices. They will continue to regularly practice at Pineland Farms.
“We are very lucky that our sport is non-contact and that wearing face masks or buffs is already the norm so that won’t be too much of a change for us,” said captain Carter Ros ’21.
He went on, “I think the biggest challenge we will be facing is the need to drive to get to ski trails. In order to combat this we will be driving in a fleet of personal vehicles and will all be wearing masks when we are in the cars together.”
And while for many, the delayed start was a tiresome, but necessary aspect of the return to Bates, for Nordic Skiing, it is something of a blessing in disguise.
“We will be able to train together as a team much deeper into the spring than we normally would since we lost so many practice days in the fall and early winter that we have a bunch of days left over,” he said. “This means that we will continue to train deeper into the spring than we ever have before, and that should set us up for success going into summer training and next season.”
Squash is one of the numerous winter sports here at Bates that, due to the enclosed nature of the sport, faces a lot of challenges in returning to practice.
Coach Reinhold Hergeth noted, “We are limited in terms of what we can accomplish during practices; however we have taken this as another opportunity to work and focus on strength training, speed work, and building muscle memory on court which might not have been the main focus without our limitations, but are all key elements in squash.”
“Great squash players adapt and learn how to be comfortable in uncomfortable situations as part of the sport,” he continued.
Additionally, Coach Hergeth noted how important it is to try and build as much team chemistry as possible this season, both from a team perspective and in terms of mental well-being.
“We welcomed a total of seven first years to the squash program this year,” he said. “It is key for any team with the desire to be great and accomplish certain goals need to be on the same page.”
“COVID-19 has created tremendous anxiety and fear everywhere, therefore taking care of their mental health on a daily basis and addressing individualized issues that may come up is as important to me as ensuring their physical health,” he continued.
Swimming & Diving
Swimming & diving is the only team on campus, given the nature of the sport, that does not have to wear masks during practice. The men’s and women’s teams are limited to 16 athletes — two per lane — during any given practice, down from nearly 30 in pre-pandemic times.
For Coach Peter Casares, these smaller practices have their own pros and cons.
“The ability to have a coach looking at only 16 athletes as opposed to 30 helps in terms of the attention we can give. Creativity, problem solving, and persistence are all very important characteristics to develop during college — and we are surely doing that,” he said.
“Our biggest challenge is continuing our philosophy of swimming for Bates,” Coach Casares continued. “We are broken up into five practices a day with many on the team never seeing teammates they have previously trained and worked hard with.”
Coach Casares also noted the impressive attitude with which his first years have approached this pandemic year: “Our first years are doing amazing with this, but I long for the day they get the feel of what it really means to be a Bobcat in this program.”
Members of the Alpine Ski team could not be reached for comment.