Uncertainty abounds: Winter sports await the University's decision for the fall of 2020

By John Powers

The men's basketball team was getting ready to host Princeton in the first round of the Ivy tournament. The hockey squad had a weekend date at Rensselaer for an ECAC quarterfinal series. The runners, fencers, wrestlers, swimmers and divers were preparing to travel to their national championships. Then, within three days, all of them found themselves packing up their dorm rooms and leaving for home, their seasons truncated.

"The whole week was touch-and-go," said distance runner Anna Juul '21, who was ten minutes away from heading for the NCAA indoor track-and-field meet in Albuquerque. "It wasn't a full blindside but I almost wasn't surprised. But it was one of the most heartbreaking days of my life."

Now, as Harvard's winter student-athletes and the rest of their classmates await word from the university as to when they can return to campus, uncertainties abound. "There's a lot of dynamics at play that make everybody uneasy," observed Ted Donato '91, the Robert D. Ziff '88 head coach for men's ice hockey.

Will the teams be able to begin their seasons in late fall, as is customary? If not, will a shortened schedule start in January? If not, should the athletes take off the fall semester? Take an entire gap year? "There's a seeking for understanding and clarity as to what the semester will look like and what that will mean for them and their sport," said Daria Schneider, who coaches the men's and women's fencing squads.

In the three months since their abrupt departure the teams have been staying in touch by Zoom. "It's almost that because we're forced to be apart right now we have that much more of a desire to be together," said water polo goalie Zoe Banks '22. "So we're doing everything we can to stay connected."

Most of the winter varsities are planning ahead while pondering unfinished business. The men's hockey team had just swept St. Lawrence in their ECAC opener when they had their sticks taken away. "A lot of guys are extra fired-up talking about next season because there's a big question mark on what we could have done," said defenseman Reilly Walsh '21. "It was tough to be halted there."

The women's basketball squad, whose campaign was undone by injuries, had looked forward to its post-season workouts as part of its resetting. "We hoped in the spring we'd work hard on our chemistry and skills to become a better team," said guard Lola Mullaney '23. "We're still trying to do that now, as hard as it is."

The men's volleyball team had its final ten matches wiped out. Only the skiers and the squash teams were able to complete their championship seasons. The men had retained their national squash crown, the women had won their sixth in a row and Gina Kennedy '20 (her third) and Marwan Tarek '22 had just claimed the individual titles. "We were very fortunate," said Mike Way, the Gregory Lee '87 and Russell Ball '88 Endowed Coach for Squash. "Just pure luck."

The fencers had qualified 11 performers for the NCAAs in Detroit, where the top-ranked men were favored to win their first title since 2006. "When the announcement came out that Harvard was not going to be attending some of my friends from Columbia were upset as well because they felt that if they did well it would always have an asterisk, that it would be remembered as the year when Harvard wasn't there," said co-captain Geoffrey Tourette '21.

The women's swimming team was sending three individuals to the nationals as well as a relay (actually two) for the first time since 1988. Two wrestlers and three distance runners were NCAA-bound. "I wish I could have competed," mused Kieran Tuntivate '20, the Bingham Award recipient who'd set university records in the mile and 3,000 meters during the season. "Now, it's just one of those things I know was out of my control. No one could have predicted a pandemic. It's in the past now."

There was just enough time before their hurried leavetaking for some varsities to arrange for a breakup dinner, elect captains and bestow awards. The squash teams met at a Square restaurant. "It's not how it's normally done but it was memorable," said Way. "We absolutely pushed everything through." 

Over time the disappointment has evolved into acceptance. "We started to wind down from the emotional roller coaster," said Rio Haskett '21, whose basketball teammates had won seven of their previous eight games and were hoping to make it to the NCAA tournament for the first time in five years. "The whole team is just worried about getting back and seeing each other right now."

Whether that's in September or January or later they don't yet know. But after spending the final two months of the academic year taking online classes nobody wants a reprise. "Every person on the team has said they hate remote," said Stephanie Wriede Morawski '92, the Costin Family head coach for women's swimming and diving. "It's not that it's not done well, it's just not college. It's not what they signed up for. They didn't sign up for Harvard for just the academic education. They signed up for the full life."

Most athletes would prefer not to take time off. If they had to continue to take classes at home they say they would. "Harvard is setting me up for something bigger than shooting a ball," said Haskett. "If it was to be online I think we would still go to school because at the end of the day we've still got that Harvard degree on the line and we all benefit from that greatly."

Unlike their fall sport counterparts the winter athletes still would have the most important part of their seasons ahead of them if campus life resumed in January. "I think guys would be fine with that," reckoned Haskett. "Okay, we missed the first half but at least we're getting something."

The men's hockey players, eight of whom are NHL picks, might face a dilemma if they went nine months without competing. "The drafted guys might have to make a decision," said Walsh, a third-round New Jersey selection. "None of us wants to think about that because ideally we're back in the fall and resuming like normal."

Staying motivated without a schedule in mind undeniably has been challenging. "It's definitely been weird running and not knowing what I'm next running for," said Juul, whose spring season ended before it began and whose cross-country season is in doubt.

Morawski has advised her swimmers and divers to take the long view. "There will be a championship in February of 2021," she told them. "What it looks like up until that point we don't know and it will definitely not look the same. But we can have a championship."

-- Your Team for Life --