The College has resumed athletic competitions with other schools following a unanimous vote of the New England Small College Athletic Conference’s (NESCAC) presidents on March 9. Teams are now playing against other Maine schools and NESCAC competition will begin mid-April.
President David Greene told The Colby Echo that, while the College could not safely allow competition in the fall and winter seasons, they have now developed a “really thoughtful plan” to create a safe season. He cited lessons learned from throughout the pandemic and decreasing cases in the country as allowing the season to happen.
Mike Wisecup, Vice President and Harold Alfond Director of Athletics, said “there’s very little evidence right now that supports that there has been spread during competitions. Most of the cases and most of what we’re seeing usually center around the social life of individuals.”
To prevent spread, teams will travel with 50% bus capacity and avoid stops, overnight trips, and eating or drinking (except out of a straw) while in transit. Other preventative measures include alternating seats, testing bus drivers, athletic trainers driving separately, and providing support vehicles in case a student needs to be isolated and returned to campus.
Additionally, athletes will receive an antigen test each day they are to compete against another school.
Wisecup said that the College requires the other school to do the same and that “we don’t travel to a school before we know our results and no school travels to us before they have the results.”
Greene said that a positive case would cancel game play. “We shut things down if we cannot ensure the safety of everyone,” he explained, adding that this was a “non-negotiable.” Multiple sports have already cancelled games because of positive tests.
Wisecup shared that opposing teams don’t have indoor access to College buildings. Rather, they come “game-ready” off their bus, and have their own restrooms and a separate tent for Athletic Trainer support in case of injury. Basically, “the only crossover will happen during the competition themselves.”
If a case occurs, both schools contact trace and communicate results with each other. Wisceup said that this has already happened with winter-season teams. Because of the positive case and contact tracing, there were not enough athletes to compete, so they “pulled the plug” on their upcoming game.
Wisecup said that, another time, a team got back a positive test from the morning-of antigen tests. When that happened, Wisecup, his counterpart at the other school, and the athletic trainers postponed the game.
“There’s no reason to push the envelope here and take unnecessary extra risk,” Wisecup said. “We’ll get in as many games as we can safely and hope that next year will be a more normal season.”
Wisecup said that, once NESCAC competition begins, teams will only play non-NESCAC schools if there is a week between that game and their next conference competition. This will allow enough time to identify potential cases.
Come the end of the season, if teams qualify for NCAA tournaments, the College will decide if teams may compete on a case-by-case basis, considering where the event is held, the nature of the sport, and how many schools will be competing.
Wisecup said that “just because we qualify doesn’t mean we’ll automatically be allowed to go.”
Wisecup noted that he works closely with Greene and the other vice presidents concerning campus-wide decisions. The return to athletics has been one such long-term topic they have worked on collectively.
Wisecup said that since the move to remote learning last March, “We’ve been on a pathway to, at some point … return[ing] back to a sense of normalcy for all of our programming: athletics, co curricular, extracurricular alike.”
In the fall, athletics started programming “conservatively,” Wisecup said. Teams practiced in pods of six to ten students, took temperature checks before every practice, and could not access locker rooms. Wisecup also received daily updates of test results within teams to help inform his decisions.
Normally, teams are only allowed by the NCAA to officially practice during their season, but that was changed to allow greater supervision of practices. Teams were permitted 114 total days this season to practice.
“What that meant was that the coaches were able to be present at every one of those practices and make sure the rules were being followed and the protocols were in place,” Wisecup explained.
Wisecup noted that this was especially beneficial for first year spring athletes who would, under the old rules, not be able to practice with their teams until the spring, but could get acquainted with them earlier in this uncertain year.
Eventually, the senior staff of the College were able to make adjustments to protocols for athletics. By the end of the semester, locker rooms were open and full teams could practice. There was no external competition and Wisecup said that, even when cases appeared on teams, they did not spread, showing the effectiveness of the testing regimen.
Greene said he believes “it is important to support our students in the ways that are most important to them, and athletics are one way to do this.” Because it is hard to compete athletically without travel, the risk is worth the reward.
Greene said he hasn’t seen any evidence of athletics fostering more cases than the rest of the student body.
By this semester, Wisceup said the College had learned enough from itself and from other institutions to feel comfortable doing “very limited winter competitions.” Those competitions, in turn, gave the administration confidence for the spring season.
Wisecup shared that not all NESCAC members are competing in all sports because of how they brought back students. For example, because Bowdoin College only brought some of their student body, they are only able to compete in softball and track and field. The number of schools competing in each sport ranges from seven to the full eleven.
Wisecup said that, in his opinion, the reward outweighs the risk to bring back external competition. When deciding to bring students back to the College in the fall, Greene developed three priorities: health and safety, academic learning, and enriching opportunities. Although bringing students back was a risk, Wisecup believes it to be a necessary risk.
In Wisecup’s view athletics has a role in Greene’s third priority.
Bret Miller `22, member of Colby Men’s Lacrosse, thinks that it was important to allow spring teams to play because they already lost most of their 2020 season. He was highly concerned about missing another season.
“I think it is a big deal when you think about the totality of college athletics as a whole. That’s almost half of your entire time playing here,” he said.
Addressing the COVID-19 risks of playing other schools, Miller said that “It was a public health risk to bring students back to campus in general. Regardless of how you cut it, you’re going to end up with risks.”
But, Miller doesn’t see an extra risk from playing sports outdoors, or at the very least thinks that there has been as much mitigation of risk as possible.
The biggest risk with athletics, Miller said, “comes not from actually playing … but from the locker room or gathering.”
“The benefit outweighs the risk in terms of physically playing,” Miller said.
As long as other schools are doing the same testing protocols, Miller feels comfortable playing them. “If they’re doing our part and we’re doing our part, there should be no reason that we shouldn’t be able to compete with one another,” he said.
Tracey Cote, Head Nordic Ski Coach, took part in the limited winter season and took four students to NCAAs in New Hampshire. Cote thinks resuming competition was good because her team competed outside, had no contact, raced masked, and switched to interval-only racing, so athletes were spaced out by 30 seconds or a minute.
Cote and the rest of the Nordic staff checked that students were adhering to the testing regimen and protocols and instituted a drinking ban, which normally is a team decision, but she felt was necessary this year.
Cote shared that, when her skiers went to NCAAs, they were PCR tested, antigen tested the morning of, drove two and a half hours, were immediately tested by NCAA on arrival, weren’t allowed to do anything until receiving negative results, and were tested every other day after that.
Upon return to Colby, they got antigen tests and went into quarantine and were tested again.
Cote said that only one skier was put in quarantine throughout the academic year, and it was due to contact tracing.
“I think my athletes were really great about following our team rules that we have in place and being really careful, so we really came out of this in a really good way,” she said.
In addition, in New England races, competitors have to report back if they test positive for COVID-19, and from what Cote has heard, no one has tested positive.
Overall, this year was a challenge but an opportunity for growth for the Nordic team. The team was unsure if they’d be able to compete but wanted to be ready in case they got permission to. Not being able to travel gave the team more time to practice and to practice in different ways.
~ Sonia Lachter ‘22