‘Heartbroken’: Rutgers’ non-revenue sports look for silver lining after Big Ten postpones fall season

When the Big Ten announced it was postponing the 2020 fall sports season as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the impact of the decision on the league’s football programs — including Rutgers, which welcomed its greatest head coach in program history back at the helm in the offseason — was, and remains, the major talking point.

Away from the spotlight, the coaches and players of non-revenue sports at Rutgers were left mourning promising seasons.

There was much to look forward to this fall in Piscataway outside of SHI Stadium:

  • A women’s soccer program ready for another crack at the elusive Big Ten title they’ve strived for since joining the conference
  • A field hockey program coming off its best two-season stretch in 20 years that returned a heap of experience
  • A men’s soccer program buzzing off a strong 2019 season in which it was nationally ranked
  • A volleyball program with a first-year head coach looking to grow out of the Big Ten basement off of its best conference showing yet

It only made the news that the Big Ten made the postponement official that much more painful.

“They were heartbroken,” head women’s soccer coach Mike O’Neill said of his players’ reaction to the news. “You can only imagine how sad and disappointed everybody was, because over the past few months, the players, coaches and staff have done everything right on and off the field, following proper guidelines and protocols to give the team the best opportunity to compete this fall … We all know the decision was made in the best interest of the health and safety of our student athletes, our coaches, our staff, but we’re all still disappointed.”

The sadness was universal across the fall sports, but so was the optimistic outlook on the new reality.

What is lost in the lack of a fall season is gained in months of potential development on the field/court and in the locker room.

For the time being, teams are allowed the standard 20 hours a week on team-related activities permitted during a normal fall season. Coaches acknowledged the possibility of that timeframe being cut to the 8-hour window normally allowed during offseason programs, a situation they feel prepared for.

Regardless of the time constraints, the plan is to take advantage of whatever time they have at their disposal. From first-year head volleyball coach Caitlin Schweihofer to veteran coaches like O’Neill and head field hockey coach Meredith Civico, it is a valuable opportunity to help their players evolve.

“It’s a great opportunity to develop,” Civico said. “Typically, you go right into preseason, have 16 days to prepare and then you have to be ready for competition. This just gives us a lot more time to prepare and develop each individual. It’ll be a time where we really get to spend a lot of time developing technical skills, tactics and I think just being able to prepare our team for competition.”

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There are hurdles each player will have to overcome to get back in practice.

Those arriving from outside the country or from one of the 35 states and territories listed by Gov. Phil Murphy will quarantine for 14 days. Players will be tested upon returning to campus and will need to receive two negative COVID-19 tests in a row to be cleared. They’ll then be tested twice a week to monitor and curb any spread should an infection enter the locker room.

Once practices are up-and-running — some have already started, while other coaches will have their teams ready to start training when classes begin on Tuesday, September 1 — things will be business as usual for the most part. Anyone at the practice that isn’t actively training (injured players, coaches, administrators, etc.) is required to wear a mask, and players are encouraged to wear masks around their teams when they’re not practicing.

Along the way, they’ll receive guidance from the Rutgers medical staff led by Interim Chief Medical Officer Dr. Joshua Bershad, which received heaps of praise across the board from the head coaches.

“We have an excellent medical staff here,” Schweihofer said. “I’ve been so impressed with the way that our medical team has handled all of our testing protocols. The health and safety of our student athletes is paramount and we have been going through a pretty diligent and strict testing guidelines as well as following all the state guidelines in order to practice.”

The ability to practice is a big boost for player morale, Rutgers head men’s soccer coach Jim McElderry said.

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Given the coronavirus pandemic, playing and practicing was neither possible nor advisable during the summer for most of his athletes. McElderry notes these are young people suddenly left without a chance to play the sport they’ve dedicated much of their lives to and with no road map on when they’d be able to again. The uncertainty caused strain on their mental health.

“I think people outside of the team environment underestimate how much the players are struggling,” he said. “It’s challenging for those players mentally and physically trying to get themselves in the condition that they normally are in. I think it really is a difficult time.”

Whether a spring season ends up happening will be seen — O’Neill said he expects to hear an update within the next couple of weeks — but what is certain is coaches look at the fall as an opportunity for some normalcy.

“Most importantly, I think we just want to make sure that putting all the kids in a great environment, keep them healthy, and then we’ll kind of adjust and be ready to pivot,” McElderry said. “As coaches, we’re used to having to kind of make decisions on the fly, so I’m not too worried about that. I think it’s more so getting the guys back on campus, getting them together, starting to allow them to enjoy playing soccer again, which many of them haven’t been able to do a lot of during this period. So I think they’re all excited to get back and just start working again.”

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Brian Fonseca may be reached at bfonseca@njadvancemedia.com.

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