Hoping for hoops: student athletes, coaches plan, pivot and practice during COVID

Hoping for hoops: student athletes, coaches plan, pivot and practice during COVID

Lily Denehy, Food and Drink Editor

Fifteen minutes of gameplay, masks at all times, chairs eight feet apart and surprise shutdowns in the middle of team weight lift — for Macalester Athletics, the COVID-19 pandemic meant a reimagining of competition, conditioning, training, community engagement and team bonding. Both men’s and women’s basketball teams practiced remotely through the summer and quiet period, eventually holding COVID-safe in-person practices by the beginning of Module 2, only to see the Leonard Center (LC) close on Nov. 18, a week earlier than anticipated.

“We did get shut down suddenly last week,” women’s basketball captain Kayla Togneri ’21 said. “They just were like, ‘it’s time to go home.’ We were in the middle of lift and… we were like, ‘What?’”

While student athletes anticipated a very different season, they’re impressed with the coaching staff for how hard they’ve worked to adjust practices and team workouts.

“[Macalester Athletics has] done a great job and it can be seen by just how few cases we have. We never had problems,” women’s captain Katherine Podoll ’21 said. “If you compare to the other [Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletics Conference] MIAC schools, it’s insane, the differences. You’ll hear complaints sometimes about how strict they’ve been, but it worked.”

“The athletic department spaced out chairs, they set up a dining option at the [Schall] Atrium for athletes,” men’s captain Gabriel Ramos ’21 said. “The weight rooms, they spaced stuff out. They moved the cardio equipment to different rooms. They moved other equipment upstairs. They moved platforms upstairs; I think they did the best they could. I think that they should be really proud about what they did this first semester.”

Macalester started the semester with a quiet period where students were asked to limit social contacts and all classes and activities were remote. When the period ended on Sept. 17, teams slowly began to work through their phased returns to practice. At first, on-campus and off-campus students were separated and athletes could only do no-contact drills. By the beginning of Module 2 in late October, however, on- and off-campus athletes were practicing together and were allowed 15 minutes of contact play (with masks) per practice.

“I think we found a way where we’re able to train safely and our athletes have access to the athletic trainers obviously when they need it,” head men’s coach Abe Woldeslassie ’08 said. “We’re all wearing masks right now on the court so all the players, all the coaches, all the athletic trainers are wearing masks the entire time, and we got creative.”

Head women’s coach Katie Kollar said students and coaches have had to get creative to ensure practices with changing numbers of athletes, no contact and masks.

“It’s definitely been a lot different,” Kollar said. “I don’t think you realize how many drills you have, as a basketball coach, that are all contact. So we’ve been adjusting for sure on that, but it’s been good… our players are really excited to be able to play some semblance of basketball since they haven’t since March and our first-years haven’t since February.”

She added that off-campus quarantining and athletes with potential COVID symptoms led to last-minute changes in the practice plans. However, Kollar emphasized this came from players being honest about their health and working to keep each other safe and honor the Macalester Community Commitment.

“We’re really excited to be on [the court], and I’m really excited for them to have the opportunity,” she said. “But I’m also as equally excited when they’re being honest about maybe a possible exposure, maybe where they’re not feeling well, and then they make the right decision. The right hard decision, as [Director of Athletics] Donnie [Brooks] would say, to ensure that everybody is safe.”

Normally both teams would be well into their seasons by now and would return to campus by late December to resume play in January. However, in an Oct. 29 update to the Macalester community, President Suzanne Rivera announced that athletic facilities would close after Thanksgiving and stay shut down until the start of Module 3 in late January. Besides basketball, indoor track and field, swimming and diving and water polo usually return early for training and competition.

Athletic teams… will not be able to return early, and any team practices and gatherings will need to be done remotely.” the email read.

“We were supposed to come back December 26,” Podoll said. “The prospect of being at home for… seven weeks is astounding for me. Usually we have like five days [at home].”

Togneri added that she felt blindsided by Rivera’s announcement at the time, but both Podoll and Togneri outlined plans for the women’s team to keep in touch and stay in shape for the potential season.

“We kind of wished some things would have been handled better, I think, from a student’s perspective,” she said. “It really affected [student athletes] when [Rivera] said no J-term athletics, because that email from her was the first time that we had heard anything about J-term being cancelled.”

Despite the abrupt changes, the women’s team plans to create small training pods and team challenges with an awareness that student athletes at home will have varying degrees of access to workout equipment.

“We plan on kind of surveying everyone, trying to get a good sense for exactly what resources people have and what they’re capable of doing,” Podoll said. “Then setting up some competitions, some things to keep people engaged and hold them accountable.”

She said the most important goals for the team over the long break will be fitness and injury prevention rather than reviewing plays or tactics. Kollar agreed and added that the team is working on a new civic engagement project.

“I’m not really that worried about Xs and Os because I think we did a pretty good job in the fall,” Kollar said. “Then when we get back into this spring, I think we’ll just kind of hit the ground running. Big thing is going to be fitness and the other big thing for me is going to be: What’s our civic engagement look like while we’re off-campus?”

The women’s team started working this year with Athletes for Hope, a nonprofit founded by iconic athletes including Muhammad Ali and Mia Hamm in 2007. The organization helps collegiate, professional and Olympic athletes find civic engagement opportunities in their communities. According to Podoll and Togneri, Macalester is the first DIII school the organization has worked with.

“They were trying to describe who has the most impact on a community and they were trying to say that it’s not necessarily pro athletes or DI athletes or whatever,” Togneri said. “It’s whoever is going to take the time to make the intimate connections in their community and actually take the time to help people.

“That really spoke to [Podoll] and I because no one really knows our names, we’re not famous in our communities, we’re not even famous in our school,” she continued. “We’re just normal students even though we play sports…  I was like, okay, we have no excuse. It’s just what you need to do to make a difference.” 

In November, the team made fleece tie blankets for a local children’s shelter. Over the break they plan to begin a larger project working with a division of Athletes for Hope which connects athletes with students to help them stay fit.

“It’s called Athletes for Hope Fit, so it’s working with kids so you get them moving in schools and stuff like that,” Podoll said. “So we’re going to start doing that and joining some classrooms in January.”

“We’re going to really try and hit the ground with a more long-term outreach program over the holiday break,” Kollar added. “Essentially, you get paired up as a mentor to try and get kids actively engaged in moving and physical activity via Zoom.”

The men’s team has also been active in the community this summer and fall. Captain Jackson Henningfield ’21 wrote in an email to The Mac Weekly that one of the team rules revolves around service to society and community engagement, as does one of the pillars of Macalester.

“Recently, we helped in packing food for Second Harvest, and it was a great experience!” he wrote. “We packed around 7,000 meals during our shift, so it was great that we were able to assist our community this way.”

The team also partnered with men’s basketball at Concordia University-St. Paul in the wake of the racial justice uprisings in late May to distribute food, clothing and other necessities to families in the Hamline-Midway-University neighborhood who were unable to access them due to business closures.

“It was impressive to see how many people came and made it to help,” Ramos said. “Then we did, in September, back to school materials and stuff like that.”

Both teams have also worked to follow the Mac Stays Safer guidelines, and it seems their efforts have paid off. As of the first week of December neither team had an athlete test positive. Throughout Macalester Athletics, in fact, there was only one case during the fall semester.

“I’m just really proud of our team — all the athletes really — and, you know, it starts with President Rivera and then [Vice President for Student Affairs] Donna Lee and then Donnie Brooks, our AD, and then our athletic trainers,” Woldeslassie said, “There has to be this common sense of ‘okay we’re going to do this, what does that look like?’ And it looks very different from years past, but still, finding a way to train safely. I’m proud as a college we’ve found a way to do it thus far.”

According to the players, accountability within both teams has made them feel extremely safe, even though exercising with others is a high risk activity during COVID.

“I honestly trusted my teammates pretty well throughout the whole process,” Togneri said. “Everyone was pretty honest about potential exposures and feeling sick and all of that, and I think that kind of was a theme throughout Mac Athletics.”

“There has been a clear and constant chain of communication between us and our coaches, so we have always felt in the loop concerning changes to practice, the facility, etc.” Henningfield wrote. “The coaching staff and the athletic department are doing all they possibly can to allow us to practice safely so that we can compete safely in the future.”

In terms of games, both student athletes and coaches are cautiously hopeful they will be able to have some form of competition later in the spring semester. However, the timeline is fluid and there are no set dates yet. The Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) cancelled all competition through the end of 2020, but the door is still open for winter sports seasons to commence in 2021. MIAC members Carleton College and St. Olaf College already cancelled their winter sports seasons. Macalester has not announced whether they will take part in the winter MIAC season.

“Just because they potentially cancel the MIAC doesn’t mean that we would never play,” Togneri said. “We could potentially schedule independently for people… who are local or more local.”

Togneri said Athletics could explore holding informal games against local colleges which aren’t part of the MIAC like the University of Northwestern in St. Paul.

“Personally, I firmly believe that a mutually beneficial decision can be agreed upon which allows us to remain safe but still compete at a high level,” Henningfield wrote. “It’s up to the administration and the conference to make such a thing happen, but it should be clear by now that we all want to play!”

From a coaching standpoint, Kollar is most concerned with keeping her athletes healthy and safe and ensuring that any schools they compete against are also following the Center for Disease Control and Minnesota Department of Health guidelines.

“Really, all I care about the end of the day is the health and safety of my players, but also my other coaches,” she said. “So I think we’re handling it well and when we talk about competition, I’m really confident that if we compete, and hopefully when we compete, it will be with other institutions that are following the same strict and strenuous guidelines that we are because I think we’re doing all the right things.”

[email protected]