Varun Maheshwari ’23 (he/him) & Andrew ElKadi ’23 (he/him), Sports co-Editors
As most teams wrap up their final practices and games of the 2020-2021 NCAA season, coaches and administrators reflect on their ups and downs coaching and directing throughout the pandemic year. We interviewed three coaches — those of the men’s basketball, women’s soccer and women’s tennis teams — as well as Athletic Director Chris Clunie ‘06 to address what went right, what went wrong and guide us through their mentality looking back on this crazy year.
Director Clunie, when asked about what went right during this pandemic year in which all 21 sports were playing together in the fall, commented, “I give a lot of credit to our scholar athletes…” and he continued to compliment their toughness and resilience with schedule flexibility, practice and lift changes and the added restrictions they faced on top the normal restrictions placed on Davidson students. “We’ve never had to deal with a Men’s soccer game conflicting with a lacrosse game […] Resources were definitely a challenge, whether it was athletic trainers or game operations staff,” Clunie added. He also continued on by saying how it was “icing on the cake” that teams despite these thinly spread resources went on to have extremely successful seasons. When asked about his collaboration with other administrators from other schools in regards to COVID guidelines and protocols, Clunie said, “there was a ton of communication back and forth, between [Athletic Directors]’s, between administors etc. Some schools are transparent but sometimes […]there was a little tension in terms of communication. Overall, a lot of back and forth work behind the scenes.”
Coach Bob McKillop of men’s basketball similarly reflected on what went right and what went wrong. He said, “So many people had to be part of the equation to pull this [season] off. So many people had to conjunctively decide that this was important.” Basketball was one of the first sports to kick off their season in the winter, playing across the country and traveling the most out of any other team. When asked about what went wrong this season, Coach McKillop immediately said, “We were held hostage by the environment of COVID. There was a constant edge about events that would transpire on a day-by-day basis. We could be unleashed, we could not be just let go and play. [COVID] didn’t allow us to be ourselves, who we worked to be […] it was almost like the brakes were put on us.”
A huge “wrong” that occurred during the men’s basketball season was their COVID pause in which the majority of the team was in quarantine and the team was put on hold for two weeks. This ruined much of the momentum that Coach McKillop raves about that the team historically develops towards the back half of the season. However, when asked to reflect about this very strange season, Coach McKillop ended the interview by saying he was , “incredibly honored to have coached this team during such a period of such physical and emotional adversity. Incredibly heartbroken they could not reap the rewards of their passionate investment of themselves to be the best they could have become.”
Although women’s soccer Head Coach Adam Denton has decades of coaching experience, he has never had to coach during a pandemic. Alluding to the various campus guidelines surrounding athletics and residential life, Denton recalls the most daunting aspect of coaching during COVID was how to best support his student athletes: “[I was] concerned about how [my] scholar-athletes [were] going to just adapt to all of those things that [were] different.” Balancing team chemistry, helping student-athletes adjust, and adapting to changing circumstances made the season more difficult to predict.
From the start, practices and training sessions looked different. For the first four weeks, a time that is critical to finding team balance and chemistry, the team did not practice together. Instead, they practiced in groups of five or six players, alternating drills in a 10 by 10 grid. Denton added, “[Finding team camaraderie] was a real challenge in the fall, because the team wasn’t really together”.
More individual sports, such as tennis, did not have to reconfigure practices and training as much. Women’s tennis Head Coach Susanne Depka explained “We still had to have some social distancing […] we weren’t able to huddle or get together […] But I think for practice purposes, and what we wanted to accomplish and do, none of that really changed, which we were really fortunate to have.”
Women’s tennis was fortunate to not deal with COVID outbreaks as much as some other teams on campus. As a result, the team was able to play a full schedule: “I think we had 19 matches, and in a normal year [there are] anywhere from 20 to 22, and 22 is a lot […] we had no idea what the year was going to be, so we wanted to have as many matches as we could, because we could have had [half] of them cancelled.” In retrospect, Depka thinks that this may not have been the best for her team’s mental health.
Depka reflected on Davidson’s COVID guidelines, saying that “without all the regulations that they had, we probably wouldn’t have been able to be here,” but noted that she occasionally wondered if the sacrifices made to be back on campus were worth it, “I just wanted what was best for [my athletes], so that they could stay mentally healthy and be happy.” Denton had similar sentiments: “It was challenging at times, but we always come back to why [the guidelines] were in place […] giving us the capacity to still be on campus […] some schools didn’t have that opportunity.”
Despite being set up for a difficult year, women’s soccer enjoyed what, in Denton’s words, was “the best season that we’ve ever had.” He believes that the shared experience of competing during the pandemic helped his team come together and perform as well as they did: “They helped each other get through [the challenges of the year], and we just started to gain some momentum as the season [continued]. And with that momentum became belief.”
The collaboration, teamwork and resilience shown by all coaches, administrators and staff has truly been remarkable. During a year of extreme uncertainty, where one often feels like tomorrow could be the complete opposite of today, our Davidson community came together and put on an absolute spectacular performance in getting our teams ready for this. NCAA season. It goes without saying that Davidson is not just advertised as a community to the outside world, but it is truly a family in which we all are eager to see each other succeed.