Going the distance: Club teams adapt under COVID

Athletes return to their sports to find a season unlike anything they’ve experienced

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@newtrieraquatics

A group of socially distanced, water polo players line up to shoot against a goalie at a recent practice

When COVID hit last March, high school athletic organizations, like many other institutions, were not prepared to handle the pandemic. They didn’t know how to ensure a child’s safety while maintaining the fun and competitiveness of sports.

By fall, however, club sports organizations were much better equipped to safely welcome their athletes back to the pool, field or gym. Though this year of athletics would look drastically different from past seasons, athletes and coaches felt generally comfortable and eager to begin training again.

“At the beginning, it was depressing almost. I wasn’t getting enough practice. I wasn’t improving and I was going backwards.””

— Uzkan

To adhere to Illinois’ COVID protocols and guidelines, club sports have had to enact procedures, including mask wearing and social distancing, to protect the health of their athletes and their coaches.

New Trier Aquatics has been practicing since the fall and has found success in their new protocols.

“You are wearing a mask, and you come in and get your hands sanitized,” says junior Kaelyn Gridley, “They check your temperature…If we’re out of the pool, you have to remain 10 feet away from someone.”

Adversity Volleyball Club player senior Kenny Dolin says there is protocol that kicks in if there is a coronavirus infection on one of their teams.

“If someone does get [COVID], the whole team has to quarantine for a minimum of five days. And in order to return into the building again, they have to send a negative test back to the club,” said Dolin.

In addition, many clubs who followed state guidelines did not participate in competitions during the fall and winter. But, as restrictions begin to loosen up in Illinois, many organizations have upcoming competitions scheduled for their teams, providing a beacon of hope.

Many student athletes believe their organizations have done a good job maintaining the safety of participants.

Sophomore Seren Uzkan, who plays water polo for New Trier Aquatics and volleyball for MOD Volleyball Club, was pleasantly surprised at her clubs’ COVID guidelines.

“I thought the whole thing was going to get shut down,” said Uzkan, “Really, there’s been no one almost, and they’ve been doing a really good job.”

“It’s all about communication…[the community] has done a great job of making sure, that it’s like ‘Hey, we traveled’ or ‘Hey, we’re exposed,’” said Alexis Keto, head coach of New Trier Aquatics, “That communication has been vital in keeping our program alive.”

As vaccinations increase and COVID cases decline in Illinois, sports seem like they are here to stay for the remainder of the pandemic, offering students the opportunity to finally experience some normalcy.

Following the athletics break allotted by quarantine, many athletes found themselves struggling because of quarantine including Uzkan.

“At the beginning, it was depressing almost,” said Uzkan, “I wasn’t getting enough practice. I wasn’t improving and I was going backwards.”

“I felt like I got a little bit less focused just because there was no meet where I could swim a really bad time and be like ‘Oh, I need to get back into it,’” said Gridley.

Keto, as a coach, has also recognized the struggles many athletes have been having.

“For our kids to not have competitions, that was tough because it’s kind of like taking a class and not having a test; there’s no way to tell if we’ve gotten better,” said Keto.

In addition, the teams themselves have lost some of their cohesiveness as a result of the extended break and the COVID guidelines.

“A lot of like growing as an athlete means growing with your team as well,” explained Dolin, “And we can’t really have as much team bonding so a lot of the overall team chemistry is kind of messed up.”

Despite the efforts of athletic organizations, there is some room for improvement when it comes to COVID precautions.

“Mask wearing is enforced,” said Dolin, “But there’s obviously going to be some people that don’t really comply…If there was a further way to enforce that I think that’d make a lot of players feel more secure.”

Athletes have also seen the structure of their sports season change in terms of practices and competitions.

“During normal practices we’d be doing a lot more drills, a lot more scrimaging, and just more contact with one another but given the current circumstances that’s not available,” said Dolin.

Junior Conner Phillips, who plays for Wilmette Wings Soccer Club, described how normally his team would practice 4-5 times a week. But, now, they practice just two times a week with no competitions on weekends.

In addition, typically, there’d be “games every weekend and tournaments multiple times a season, and that can be with many teams out of state or the tournament itself out of state,” said Phillips.

Nonetheless, most kids felt happy to return to their sports after months of time off regardless of the new protocols and structure.

“I just felt like I direly needed physical activity,” said Phillips, “I need to see some kids my age; I wasn’t getting that interaction.”

Likewise, “Personally, I was really excited to get playing. [COVID] didn’t bother me at all,” says Uzkan, “And now that everything is slowly getting back to normal, things are getting a lot better.”