Three hundred and twenty-two days. That’s how long Director of Athletics Jeff Martinez, coaches, athletic staff, and student-athletes at the University of Redlands paused in-person sports activities due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It has been pretty emotional,” says Martinez, who has worked in Bulldog Athletics for four decades. “Without a doubt, these last 10 months have been the most challenging in my professional career.”
Associate Athletic Director Rachel Roche remembers the stress and uncertainty of last March when NCAA canceled the winter and spring seasons. “Everything was ripped away in a matter of days,” recalls Roche. “When I left the office, I didn’t know when I would be back or how long this would last.”
Head Coach Mike Schmidt was in North Carolina with track and field student-athletes last March when their national championship competition was suddenly halted. “It was devastating,” he recalls.
However, as the months stretched on, Martinez, Roche, Schmidt, and the rest of the Athletics staff worked hard to keep Bulldog student-athletes engaged virtually, checking on the 500 student-athletes by video, call, or text.
“We were managing the different experiences of our students across the country,” says Roche. “We do this work to support students, and being removed from them for so long was difficult and strange.”
And yet, Schmidt notes, “Our mission is to develop quality student-athletes, and part of that is teaching them how to be comfortable with uncertainty … there is no greater situation to test that lesson than COVID-19.”
A joyful return
While hopes for an in-person fall season were not realized, 2021 has been a step in the right direction. Despite the unknowns about whether student-athletes in the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SCIAC) will be able to compete this academic year, Bulldog Athletics resumed limited in-person sports activities on January 25.
Women’s Softball Head Coach Jose Ortega has noted the joy in his student-athletes as they return. “We are just so grateful to be out on the field because it signals that we are getting back a little normalcy,” says Ortega, who is sharing a specific theme with his team each week, the first of which was gratitude. “If we are fortunate enough to have a competitive season, we will start talking about that. But for now, we are easing back into it.”
The return to the field has been accompanied by a host of new COVID-related safety procedures—a daily health assessment, temperature checks before each interaction, and COVID-19 testing that often exceeds the once-a-week College of Arts and Sciences requirement.
“There are a lot of new expectations,” says Martinez, “but we have had buy-in from our coaches and student-athletes. We are communicating that a person’s actions can potentially impact others, and everyone has said ‘I’m in.’ We are proud of what we have been able to do.”
“Our mindset about the restrictions and parameters is that it is something we ‘get to do,’ not something we ‘have to do,’” affirms Ortega.
This semester, all 170 on-campus student-athletes are housed together in five residence halls (Founders, East, Merriam, North, and Williams). Roche notes this has been particularly beneficial for first-year student-athletes who had a strange first semester, helping them “gain immediate connections with their teammates also living in the same space.” An additional 230 student-athletes are living off-campus this spring.
Foundation for the future
Schmidt sees this season as an opportunity to build a foundation for the future: “It’s a chance to restart, reboot, and set forth some of our principles and philosophies.” With health and safety as his number one priority, Schmidt’s goal is to “give our student-athletes the best possible experience this year, given the restrictions that we have.”
Both Martinez and Roche are cautiously optimistic about the future. “We are approaching this as a developmental season in which our students can build relationships and practice the sports they love,” says Martinez, who admits he still misses the “sweaty hugs” from his Bulldogs.
“There is still uncertainty,” he says, “but we can see some light at the end of the tunnel.”
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