Macalester sports resumed competition in March, over a year after suspending all in-person practices, training and games due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The athletics department reopened competition on March 19 with two basketball games. Since mid-March, Macalester’s win-loss record, across all sports, is one of the best in recent memory. The women’s water polo team went undefeated, women’s tennis was regionally ranked for the first time ever and the men’s basketball team won a thrilling buzzer beater game.
Through it all, Macalester athletics saw very few positive COVID-19 cases among student-athletes. During the entire fall semester, they had just one confirmed positive case. Compared to other professional and NCAA teams, the Scots are an outlier. Almost every professional men’s league in 2020 postponed, rescheduled or changed games and training due to positive coronavirus tests. During the NCAA Men’s Basketball March Madness tournament, one team forfeited a game due to positive COVID tests. In the fall, scandals abounded with the push to return Division I football to full competition. A study from Ohio State University, released in September 2020, linked even mild COVID-19 cases to heart inflammation or myocarditis in college athletes.
Unlike these schools, Macalester stayed relatively COVID-free. More importantly, unlike NCAA Division I schools, Macalester’s athletics department is not a main source of revenue for the college. Therefore the college could take time to establish the most public health-conscious plan possible for the return of athletics. Macalester Director of Athletics Donnie Brooks attributes their success to three important steps the department began during in-person practices this fall.
“We knew a couple things could be effective in a pandemic: one was distance, creating physical distance between folks; two is masking; and three is testing,” Brooks said. “With those three things we started — I laugh when I say this — practices with 10 feet of distance between players.”
Brooks added that many schools ran into problems when they tried to move quickly into playing and practicing. The data from COVID outbreaks at Minnesota health clubs and gyms released in November shows outbreaks at St. Thomas, St. John’s University, the College of St. Benedict, Minnesota State University-Mankato, the University of Minnesota Duluth and the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. While these cases may not only be linked to athletics, Macalester’s cautious reopening of the Leonard Center (LC) for both athletes and non-athletes prevented an outbreak at the college.
Ultimately, Macalester’s athletic decisions centered on cautious optimism amid the vast uncertainty of the pandemic.
“We really approached [the year] with the hope of, can we just keep going for one more day?” Brooks said. “Then it became one more week. Then it became maybe next semester, and then it became, ‘can we compete?’ I am really proud of the work by everybody, students, coaches, community, to get us to the point where we’re now competing.”
The year-long break in competition did not mean a year-long break in training and practice. The focus on returning to practice and play, however, also led to some controversial campus decisions. All first-year student-athletes live in Kirk Hall and, during module 1, all athletes ate in the LC instead of Cafe Mac. This led to an exacerbation of the athlete/non-athlete divide on-campus and complaints about the quality of food in the LC.
Brooks emphasized the positive side of the return to play and the flexibility coronavirus restrictions allowed student-athletes.
“We’ve said the word ‘optional’ more than we ever have in athletics, and I actually think in some cases that less was more,” he said. “Without the pressure of contest, it allowed our students to do more. While we were divided physically, the more activities we were allowed to do on campus and the more our students were engaging in those activities.”
The other benefit of the drawn-out return to intercollegiate competition at Macalester was time to practice. In the 2019-2020 basketball season, for example, the women’s basketball team ended with a 1-24 record. This year, with the extra time to focus on practice, they played a four-game series against St. Olaf College and St. Catherine University and ended with a 3-1 record. Other teams also showed improvement.
The softball team beat Grand Ave. rival St. Thomas, 4-2. The women’s water polo team went undefeated over their four game season. Finally, men’s basketball was 2-2 against St. Olaf with their final win coming in a thrilling three-point overtime buzzer beater from Tyler MacFarland ’21. Brooks credits the extra team bonding and practice time with the runaway success of Macalester teams this year.
“The best thing that probably could have happened this year was we had time to practice and develop skills and get to know each other,” Brooks said. “I think that ability to build as a community, for teams to focus on team building and all of those Zoom meetings and practices helped us compete better.”
Team successes and President Suzanne Rivera’s social media support has galvanized Macalester students and community members to come to games this year while following college public health guidelines. Though the stands are not full still, Brooks sees the potential for athletics to become a new touchstone for the post-pandemic Macalester community.
Next year, only the class of 2022 will have attended in-person Macalester for a full year. All other students will have spent at least part of their prior college years on Zoom from their bedrooms, dorm rooms and apartments. In-person Springfest, for example, will only be a memory for the senior class next year. Sports competitions and other on-campus traditions will have a similar lack of student memory. For Brooks, this is a chance to change Macalester culture and integrate athletics more deeply into the community.
“Next year is an opportunity for us to do something special,” he said. “The first thing is the Macalester culture that was, is probably going to be different from the culture that is… That’s an opportunity for us to build some new cultures and structures.
“I just know there will be a greater investment in athletics and how we integrate our athletes starting from the first day of Orientation next year,” Brooks continued.
To draw more students to athletic competitions, Brooks sees winning as an important step — in addition to community building. He also wants students to get off of screens and out of their dorms.
“What I feel like we need, as a community, is we need a break sometimes,” Brooks said. “We just need to get away. We’ve all been trapped in our rooms and we’ve been tapped into the screens… I really want our students to have the opportunity to escape.”
In a year with little in-person contact and many hours on Zoom, the outdoor athletics events are one of the few opportunities Macalester students and community members have to be in-person. Athletics has also established a number of outdoor activities, such as a nordic skiing track during the winter and a disc golf course. The department created an esports league this year and held spikeball and cornhole tournaments as public health recommendations permitted.
Outside of athletics, the theater and dance department set up outdoor performances and student organizations like Program Board sponsored activities on Shaw Field and the Office of Student Leadership and Engagement handed out puzzle kits outside the Ruth Stricker Dayton Campus Center.
Brooks hopes the support students show for music, arts and academic events can be extended to athletics. He acknowledges, however, that support is often connected to wins — something Macalester is not known for. That might be changing. With a perennially-dominant women’s water polo team, a regionally-ranked women’s tennis team and men’s tennis’ 5-1 record so far, Macalester is seeing athletic success this spring.
“People, they don’t want to come see us just compete, they want to see us see us win,” Brooks said. “That opportunity is ahead of us and something that the Scots will work really hard at. My hope in the future is that with both athletic success, with building a stronger community, that students show up to games and say, ‘This is what it’s supposed to feel like.’”