A Time-out for Athletics

Posted on 11/20/2020 8:46:17 AM

The IUP campus took on a surreal appearance for much of 2020: bleachers empty, scoreboards dark, cheerleaders with no one to cheer for.

Miller Stadium and Ed Fry Arena in the Kovalchick Convention and Athletic Complex have been without IUP sports competition since last school year. (Miller Stadium: Emily Smith) (Fry Arena: Andrew Thompson)

Intercollegiate athletics at IUP came to a standstill for the first time since World War II—a global pandemic rather than a global conflict bringing activity to a screeching halt.

The raging coronavirus left defending Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference tennis champion Joanna Stralka sitting on the sidelines, six-time all-conference cross country and track performer Sam Lenze without a race to run, and three-time all-conference running back Justice Evans unable to pad his eye-popping career yardage and touchdown totals.

For the first time in 75 years, sports schedules were wiped out. Spring and fall competition were the first to fall victim to the virus, and winter sports were canceled by PSAC decree on November 17. Athletics are set to resume in the spring of 2021, but even the most reckless of gamblers is unlikely to bet that meets, matches, and games will take place then. The virus has made a mockery of long-range planning, and athletes are at its mercy, stuck in a sort of limbo.

“It’s awful when you have a kid who asks you, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’ And you really can’t tell them, because you just don’t know,” said swimming coach Chris Villa. “I’m going to have competition sometime. The band will play on eventually, but not necessarily for these kids. I feel for them.”

Athletics were abruptly shut down in mid-March as COVID-19 cases surged in the United States. The IUP men’s (28-2) and women’s (28-3) basketball teams were thus denied the opportunity to host the Atlantic Region tournament at the Kovalchick Complex, a possible springboard to a berth in the NCAA Division II Elite Eight. Baseball and softball players missed out on their annual spring break trips to the South. Swimmers Rachel Johnson and Paige Mikesell, competing at nationals in Geneva, Ohio, left early when the four-day meet was canceled before reaching its halfway point. And men’s track participants, who were anticipating a big season, never had the opportunity to prove their optimism was justified.

“It was definitely devastating,” said Lenze, a senior distance specialist who also lost his cross country season in the fall. “Our indoor track season went incredibly well, and we were really geared up to have a great outdoor season. It’s never 100 percent sure that everything’s going to go great, but, dang, we were primed.”

Sophomore Joanna Stralka won the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference singles title in fall 2019 and hopes to claim another. (IUP Athletics)

Stralka, a sophomore from Sweden who captured the PSAC singles crown in the fall of 2019 and was named the Intercollegiate Tennis Association Atlantic Region Freshman of the Year, had hoped to claim a second title in 2020. Now she’s just hoping to play—period.

“Our main goal is to win the regional championship, but now we don’t know if there will be a championship, we don’t know if we’re going to have conference matches, and we don’t know if we’ll be able to compete at all,” Stralka said. “So it’s really hard to keep the motivation and intensity at 100 percent during practice. We know we’re practicing for a goal, but we don’t know if we’ll actually be able to reach the goal, because of the pandemic.”

Senior running back Justice Evans said he works hard to stay focused, so he’s ready when competition resumes. (IUP Athletics)

Evans, a senior who has piled up 2,443 rushing yards and scored 25 touchdowns, felt lost on idle autumn Saturdays when he typically would have been scampering over the Miller Stadium turf.

“It’s actually been kind of stressful,” he said. “It’s hard for everybody, not playing. But you’ve got to stay focused, control what you can control, and be ready for when they do let us play.”

Once the fall schedule was abandoned, the PSAC looked into shifting those sports to the spring. But there was no guarantee schools would get a green light to compete then or anytime soon. That kind of uncertainty has been gnawing at IUP’s athletes since March.

“It does take a toll on their mental health and wellness—the unknown, the unforeseen, wondering if they’ll compete again,” said Todd Garzarelli, athletics director.

To provide some sense of normalcy, athletes were permitted to begin workouts—in small groups only—when they returned to campus for the fall semester. The university formed a COVID-19 task force, composed of coaches, administrators, and health professionals, to offer support and guidance. In addition, the Athletics Department launched a virtual speaker series to help athletes improve their skills, knowledge, and overall well-being outside of sports.

“Since we weren’t going to play, we wanted to build a platform this fall—an educational platform to really connect with student-athletes in a manner that we weren’t able to previously, because they were so busy with games and competition,” Garzarelli said. “We wanted to engage them in a different manner, so we developed a speaker series to give them tips and tools to help them navigate this tough time.”

Those Zoom videoconferencing events have touched on a variety of topics: mental health and wellness, social injustice, voter registration, coping with the loss of identity as an athlete, and leadership within a sports team and within society in general. Renowned motivational speaker and best-selling author Jon Gordon addressed athletes in November.

“Attendance at these meetings is optional,” Villa said, “but our turnout has been phenomenal. I think, at the first one, we had just about every athlete accounted for. So they’re really taking advantage of the services and things that we’re offering them.”

Even if it’s only lending an ear.

Senior distance specialist Sam Lenze’s most recent IUP meet was during the indoor track season in early 2020. (IUP Athletics)

“Everyone’s been awesome,” Lenze said. “We’re students—we’re going to make mistakes. We’re just a bunch of kids who want to see our friends. So when the restrictions started coming into play, and we started crossing some boundaries, everyone was very supportive, very understanding, just super compassionate. They knew how much we were struggling and how much losing that social aspect was just killing us. They care about us—that’s the one thing we’ve got. They’re all about, ‘How can we help you?’”

Administrators and coaches have been supportive of the athletes since March, when sports at IUP came to a halt for the first time since World War II.

“We’ve been very transparent from the beginning with our student-athletes,” Garzarelli said. “The bottom line is, we’re always going to put them in a position to be successful on and off the field. They came to IUP to compete for and win championships, and hopefully we can get back to competition on the shorter side and give them that opportunity.”