Student-athletes adjust to life without sports

By Dylan Manfre

The cancellation of spring sports and winter championships felt like the sting of a Band-Aid being ripped off without warning.

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) silenced the sports world seemingly out of nowhere and has shown little give in the grip it has on the nation.

It has resorted student-athletes to training in bedrooms or working out in basements instead of their shoes squeaking on a court or pants getting tarnished from the infield dirt.

The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) announced the cancellation of its postseason basketball tournament and spring season at 2:30 p.m. in a press conference on March 12. Commissioner Rich Ensor welled up and made the painful statement to the media at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

“It hurts,” Ensor said at the tournament. “I regret having to do this and I share [the players’] pain.”

Breaking the news

On March 11, the women’s basketball team defeated Niagara and was awaiting the winner of Quinnipiac and Manhattan to see who its semifinal opponent would be.

Senior guard Stella Johnson said the team planned to go watch the game in person — they would be allowed in since players were considered essential personnel — but she saw a tweet that said the two teams had not warmed up yet. That is when the suspicions set in.

“We were all eating lunch together in [Head Coach Lynn Milligan’s] room and it just got silent,” Johnson said. “We just felt it. We saw it on coach’s face and I think everyone’s energy just went downhill after that. It’s kind of like all the happiness got sucked out of the room.”

In Johnson’s freshman year, Rider advanced to the championship and lost to Quinnipiac. This year, she believed her team could have made the finals and won had the coronavirus not taken over.

The MAAC officially awarded Rider’s women and Siena’s men’s basketball teams the championship trophy on March 24.

Johnson, who was the nation’s scoring leader at 24.8 points per game, feels the team has unfinished business — and rightfully so — as Rider finished with the best record in program history at 24-4 overall, 18-2 in conference play.

“At least my freshman year we ended in the championship, even though we lost,” she said. “Now we don’t know what could have been.” 

The baseball team never unpacked its bags from the bus after it traveled 714 miles to Charleston, South Carolina, for the inevitably canceled series against Citadel.

“We arrived at the hotel 15 minutes prior to the call,” freshman infielder Luke Lesch said. “We just stayed the night and went out to dinner around Charleston.”

The team slept at the hotel and boarded the bus back to Rider at 5 a.m. on March 13.

Sophomore mid-distance runner Luis Rodriguez battled through multiple injuries during the indoor season but competed in seven meets. He had his focus pointed toward the spring season. He wanted it to be his “break-out year,” but instead “a really bad nightmare,” had begun.

Rodriguez attended a team meeting, which was the last for the foreseeable future they would be together as a group. The team did its “All heart; No quit!” chant three times as they huddled in a circle.

“That is a day and time I’ll never forget,” he said.

Adjusting to life without sports

Rodriguez said he is in the gym around five days a week. Working out and being a part of the track team consumes most of his time. Without a season to run, a void has been created in his life.

“With all the gyms closing, I really have to do body workouts in my house,” Rodriguez said.

Lesch no longer has the luxury of working out in the Anderson Family Strength and Conditioning Center in the Canastra Health and Sports Center — the athletes’ gym. Instead, he has resorted to other methods to stay active.

“I’ve been doing at-home workouts,” Lesch said. “I’ve been doing a lot of yoga and I’m doing infield drills and hitting off the tee just to keep my fundamentals up.”

Lesch played 14 games, 12 of which he started, in his freshman campaign before the coronavirus pandemic pulled sports to a halt. He posted respectable numbers, batting .289 with a .347 on-base percentage. and just started getting his feet wet.

He was named MAAC Rookie of the Week on March 3 and posted a .357 batting average over the four-game stretch.

Silver Lining?

Canceling the entire spring season is an unprecedented measure nobody saw coming, nor were they able to prepare for.

There is an old saying in sports that reads: “Treat every [game, match, race, etc.] like it’s your last.” Given the circumstances and recent experiences, Lesch said that phrase is something he will often think about.

Lesch was stunned when he first found out the men’s basketball team was never able to take the floor for its quarterfinal round game. Rider was slated to play Niagara at 7 p.m. on March 12 and Ensor made the announcement five hours earlier.

“Everyone knows now to play the game like it’s your last one,” Lesch said. “That should be your mentality every game but now everyone knows that it could be a possibility, I guess we’re going to have to [believe it].”

The NCAA announced “eligibility relief is appropriate for all Division I student-athletes” for spring sports but said details would be “finalized at a later time.” 

Athletes like Rodriguez and Lesch both said they would take advantage of the opportunity.

All anybody can do now is hope this pandemic passes soon and sports can resume as normal.

Follow @Dylan Manfre on Twitter for the latest on Rider athletics.

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