As students get used to the new normal at the University of New Hampshire this fall, athletes face an even larger adjustment. Athletes can normally count on the structure of a season and the support network that a team provides. The COVID-19 pandemic has taken that away this fall and UNH’s student-athletes now must adapt to unprecedented circumstances.
Forest Mackenzie is a sophomore on the UNH men’s cross-country team. He has seen his fall season postponed after already losing his spring track season earlier this year. He knew the postponement was coming but the pain of a lost season still caught him off guard when he and his teammates were told in mid-July.
“You didn’t really expect it to hurt that much even though you knew it was coming.” Mackenzie said.
He noted that the pain of the lost season was hard for him but the hardest on seniors.
“Now I’m never going to be on a cross-country team with those guys ever again. It’s tough. It’s like secondhand pain for them, there’s pain for everybody but it’s really painful for them. It’s like your dog dying. You know it’s coming and when it happens, it sucks. No matter how much you prepare.”
The student-athletes will not lose any eligibility this semester, but Mackenzie said that for many seniors it’s not as simple as just coming back for another year.
“People aren’t going to come back because they’ve already done five years, or they don’t have their major here. It’s just like, there’s so many complications that you can’t just say, I’ll give you another year of eligibility.”
Jamie Wilkes is one of those seniors as well as a captain on the men’s cross-country team. He is now forced to grapple with the loss of his final season at UNH while trying to lead a team that can’t truly be a team. Wilkes said that he and the other seniors have become close and would often think ahead to their senior season.
“It doesn’t get to play out the way that that you plan it or talk about it. So emotionally, it just takes a toll.” The team continues to run and practice in small groups but according to Wilkes motivation can be hard to find. “…there’s nothing really in the future to kind of see what you’re showing up to practice for. So, it’s just a lot of waiting. Which… I guess it’s just emotionally draining.”
The NCAA has announced that it will work on potentially hosting fall championships in the spring. For Cross-Country this would potentially mean a season starting in Feb. or March ending in time for the spring track season. Wilkes hopes this can be successful but isn’t holding his breath.
“I think like anything that’s happened in the past six months, you’ve kind of just got to wait, hope for the best. Kind of realize that the worst is a possibility.”
Mackenzie is blunter with his assessment.
“The probability of that happening for us is just ludicrous. There’s no way we can have a season when it’s zero degrees up here. It’s really a southern idea. The Midwest? there’s no way they’d be able to do it. So, it’s nice that they’re trying to do stuff. But it just kind of seems like it’s a wash at this point.”
Wilkes has been put in the position of trying to lead a team he can’t see in person.
“So, with the freshmen, we don’t have a ton of contact info. So especially for those really young guys with their first year, it’s hard to reach out and say, ‘hey, come over we’ll go on a run’ you know?”
The team can’t practice or run all together as they have been instructed to only do so with those they live with. This has led to a lack of unity amongst the team and most heavily impacted the freshman.
“I feel for them because I know my freshman year, it really helped having the seniors, the upperclassmen, the captain’s give words of advice. Even just like showing running routes around Durham. You don’t even have that kind of capability when you’re stuck in small groups.”
Mackenzie said the team environment he’s used to is no longer there.
“You kind of just see bits and pieces of the team. So, until we see the full team, it’s still like, a part of you is broken. It doesn’t seem real, like some guys even deferred this semester because what’s the point, you know?”
Mackenzie gives credit to the seniors and Coach Boulanger for hosting Zoom meetings so the team can at least be together virtually.
“That’s the only time we’ve seen everybody.”
Unfortunately, Zoom calls are a far cry from the experience Mackenzie had his freshman year.
“It’s weird because last year, you’d eat dinner, everyone together. Lunch, everyone together. Breakfast, everybody together. Go practice, everyone’s together. Weekends, everybody’s together. And now it’s like you’re all alone. Yeah, It’s a different world, totally different.”
UNH will allow the cross-country team to begin practicing in slightly larger groups this week and Wilkes is optimistic.
“Hopefully we’ll be able to talk to those younger kids and kind of help them with the transition. This is not an easy transition from high school to college, athletics and just school in general.”