Sports

Karl Lindholm: Pandemic sports: ‘The best part of their day’

SEVEN-YEAR-OLD FOOTBALL FAN Dylan Hicks of Monkton watches the Middlebury College big boys practice on a beautiful late afternoon day earlier this month. Panther football and sports at the college in general provided unexpected experiences for students athletes this fall. Photo by Karl Lindholm

This fall was a joy, really special the way it unfolded. I never thought it would be this exhilarating for everyone, including the coaches.
— Coach Katharine DeLorenzo

Katharine DeLorenzo’s Middlebury College field hockey team has won three NCAA Division III championships in a row with an overall won-loss record in that time of 62-4. This fall season, however, they didn’t win a single game!
The Middlebury football team, under Bobby Ritter, was the NESCAC champion last year with an unprecedented 9-0 record (the league went from a schedule of eight to nine games just three years ago), only the third undefeated team in the last 120 years of Middlebury football history. 
The Panther football team likewise didn’t win a game this fall, though Ritter said he believes it’s more accurate to say, “We’re still undefeated.” 
Like all colleges and universities, Middlebury struggled with the decision to open with in-person learning this semester and chose to do so amid considerable skepticism and criticism, putting in place stringent rules and guidelines to make it all work.
On July 10, the presidents of the 11 NESCAC colleges, “with great reluctance,” determined that there would be no conference sports competition for the fall, out of concern for “the health and well-being of students, faculty, staff, and the broader community.” On Oct. 8, the same decision was reached regarding winter sports, and spring sports hang in the balance.
For all students, but athletes especially, the decision to return to school, or to sit out the semester, was not easy, and involved a variety of academic as well as health and safety concerns. Even for those who returned, the majority of classes were remote, online, via Zoom. 
Two-thirds of the athletes on the field hockey and football teams chose to come back to campus, to be in residence, though their social interactions would be severely restricted, and violations of safety protocols would involve significant penalties (as it turned out, 29 students were in fact “dismissed” from campus). 
For the coaches of the fall teams, there was no playbook, no history to call on, for how to lead their athletes in a season with no games, no competition to provide the endpoint of the daily rigor of preseason and in-season practice. The season required of them great ingenuity, adaptability, and collaboration — and for their student athletes great resilience. 
Both DeLorenzo and Ritter are teachers essentially, the playing field their classroom, their subject matter the sport they love. Their goals were not only to provide a positive outlet for their athletes amid the limitations placed on their lives, but for the opportunity to improve their skills in and understanding of the game to which those athletes devoted so much time and energy.
In conversations last weekend, both coaches affirmed that their seasons posed unique and significant challenges, but the result greatly exceeded their expectations. 
“It’s amazing how much you can get done in two and half months of uninterrupted practice,” DeLorenzo said. “I felt at times like I had died and gone to heaven. It’s pretty dramatic how much each player raised her own bar. 
“This fall was a joy, really special the way it unfolded. I never thought it would be this exhilarating for everyone, including the coaches.”
Both teams had full practices three days a week, and field hockey in late October (as some of the COVID strictures were modified) added a Saturday morning practice of small six-on-six scrimmages. “There were stipulations,” Katharine added: “We kept the field really big, and there was no ‘bodying-up.’” These scrimmages were live-streamed to families and players who were at home, “with an injured player providing commentary.”
For senior Diana Milne, who played on all three of those championship teams and returned for her last field hockey season at Middlebury knowing there would be no actual games, “we had a lot of fun this fall, but it wasn’t easy. If you were at a practice, you wouldn’t have known that we didn’t have a game coming up. Chris (assistant coach Chris Mills) and Delo were constantly working to make new and creative drills that followed the guidelines.” 
Of the football experience this fall, Ritter said, “It was definitely worthwhile. It was tough for these students, with all the restrictions they faced. I think our players really enjoyed coming down to practice three days a week, and their attitude was great. It gave them an outlet, a release. 
“For some of our players, the walk down to practice with a teammate might have been the best part of their day.”
For the coaches, he said, “It was a godsend — to teach and coach and interact with these players, outside, in this more relaxed atmosphere. We wanted to make this a great experience for our players and to see them progress as athletes. Their attitude was great. The camaraderie this year was even stronger than in the past.”
On one of those warm early November days, I took my football-mad seven-year-old grandson, Dylan, to a Middlebury football practice. He was transfixed, awed, watched with rapt attention as the 60 big boys went through their practice drills, in position groups, going from station to station, with music playing through the PA system.
I remember football practice as mostly drudgery for me, full of rugged exercises, a necessary preliminary to Saturday’s excitement. These Middlebury players were actually enjoying themselves, immensely. I noted one player, No. 2, sprinting to the various stations, making a joyful noise, doing somersaults, literally. Bobby told me, “Oh, that was Jourdon Delerme-Brown, a senior — he’s crucial to the team.”
Jourdon chose to come back to school this fall, attend every practice, even though, like Diana in field hockey, it was his last opportunity to play football competitively at Middlebury. “Although we had to wear masks and couldn’t play games, we wanted to be there for each other and compete,” he wrote in an email. “As a senior, the opportunity to practice as a Panther this season was the embodiment of our team principles.”
Jourdon has been very involved in the diversity initiatives at the College, so for him an added benefit was that “the circumstances of this season allowed me to discuss deeper issues with my teammates, who applied the same energy and commitment to those conversations as they did to practices. 
“Football isn’t about the obstacles you face, but who you become as you work to overcome them.” 
At the end of that practice I attended with my grandson, Coach Ritter brought the players and coaches to the center of the field. He shared a few words with them and then instructed all to look west at a glorious flaming sunset. The beautiful Vermont sunset got a standing ovation.
Middlebury football and field hockey — undefeated and still champs! 

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