Life lessons: Spring sports use lost season as a teachable moment

By John Powers

The men's tennis players were going to California until Harvard forbade air travel. Then they were planning to drive to play regional rivals. Then they put their racquets away. "It all happened really fast for us," recalled Ronan Jachuk '23. "Within five days it went from spring break to our entire season being canceled."

The softball team, already ten games into its schedule and also California-bound, hastily found another tournament within driving distance. "I told them, this road's going to split," said head coach Jenny Allard, the 2019-20 Ragatz Family Harvard Women's Coach of Excellence. "Either we're getting on a bus to Maryland or you're going home."

So it went for all of the Crimson spring varsities in mid-March when the Ivy League suddenly scrubbed their seasons. The softball squad was working toward defending its Ivy crown and earning another NCAA appearance, as was the baseball team.

"I felt badly for our seniors, I felt badly for everybody," said Bill Decker, the Joseph J. O'Donnell '67 Head Coach for Baseball, whose players had an upcoming tournament in Richmond. "I thought we were going to be able to compete again and who knows what may have happened?"

The men's tennis team, sporting an 11-1 record, had been ranked as high as 11th in the country, its best listing since 1998, and the women's squad was hoping to dethrone Princeton as Ivy titlist. The women's lacrosse team, coming off a 6-9 season, had just won two games in a row. "That's why we were extra sad," said midfielder Tessa Queri '21. "Because we thought the season was going to go way better than last year."

The men's lacrosse team, also hoping to rebound from a losing campaign, was preparing to host Brown in its league opener. "The sense of loss and disconnection from their teammates, that was the hardest thing," mused Gerry Byrne, The Frisbie Family Head Coach for Harvard Men's Lacrosse who was in his first season. "The sense of incompletion -- forever it will be suspended in time. You'll never know."

Some spring sports didn't even get started. The men's and women's track-and-field teams, both second in the indoor Heptagonals, didn't make it to Houston for their opening outdoor invitational. The women's golf team, looking for their seventh Ivy title in nine years, never teed off. The crews didn't head south. "If you've ever wondered what a sabbatical would be like, this is it," observed Charley Butt, The Bolles-Parker Head Coach for Harvard Men's Heavyweight Crew, who hadn't had a spring off in three dozen years. "You've got one whether you like it or not."

Unlike their winter sport counterparts whose seasons were cut short the spring athletes received a substantial consolation prize -- an extra year's eligibility which under Ivy rules must be used elsewhere. All five of the baseball seniors will have a fifth year at schools ranging from Duke to San Diego. "They've got their Harvard degree," said Decker. "Why not get your graduate degree somewhere else and continue to play the sport that you grew up with and loved for one more year?"

Several men's lacrosse players have entered the NCAA transfer portal and distance runner Kieran Tuntivate '20 said that he's exploring the fifth-year option as well. "It's a good opportunity to get an education at the same time as running," said the Bingham Award winner, who hopes to compete for Thailand in next year's Olympics. "It's nice to have both options."

Most of the recent graduates, though, have decided to stick with their original post-Harvard plans. Isabelle Haugh '20 and Alissa Hiener '20, the only two softball seniors, have other commitments as do all eight of the women's lacrosse grads. The future can be deferred for only so long. "This generation got a lesson in how unfair things can be," said Butt. "It's a bit like life. One moment everybody's on the go. The next moment things are different."

The moral for the returning undergraduates is to make the most of the present. "One of our team's main themes has been focusing on controllable factors, especially now," said golfer Anina Ku '22. "You want to have goals but you don't know when you're going to go back. So we're working on short-term things like performance mindset. From there we'll look forward to the next thing that we know for certain and keep going from there."

One way or another Crimson athletes are using the spring and summer months to prepare for what's ahead. Ku has been able to get out frequently on a nearby New Jersey course. Jachuk hits several times a week with teammate Steven Sun '22, who has access to a Florida court. The softball team has been having chalk talks on Zoom. "A lot of mental gamework," said Allard. "Character muscles like persistence, motivation, resilience. We talk about leadership, being a great teammate."

If they're back on campus in the fall the spring athletes can do their usual structured preparation. The rowers will be on the water, getting ready for the Head of the Charles Regatta. The softball players will have skill sessions, conditioning and several doubleheaders. Baseball will return to the diamond as well. "I fully anticipate being able to do something," said Decker. "It's going to have a different look, a different flavor to it but we'll get through it. We're going to have to, just like everybody else. You just have to have some creativity."

If the fall term is to be entirely remote, athletes may be able to turn it to their advantage. "I could focus on taking some harder courses that I need to graduate," said Ku, who'll be a junior. "If they allow me I could take four or five courses that go towards my concentration. If I was playing there'd be no way I could take all of them in one semester."

Some of the spring squads will be at least as well off next year as they would have been this season. The men's tennis team, which featured three first-years, returns its entire starting lineup plus three promising newcomers. "We're going to be really deep," reckoned Jachuk. "We'll definitely be as good if not better next year, hoping to achieve some big goals."

Clark Dean '22, the heavyweight stroke who took off the last academic year to train with the Olympic rowing team hopefuls in Oakland, will be back as well. "Harvard and the rowing team have invested in me and I owe it to them," said Dean, who can resume his US training after the next year's Yale race, which was unheld this season for the first time since 1945. "I want to race with Harvard as many times as I can." The baseball team will return several players who were injured or out of school this year. "My standpoint is, this is going to be a good thing for us," figured Decker.

If nothing else the vanished spring season has tested the athletes' ability to deal with disruption, a priceless life lesson. "Things don't always go your way but you have to deal with disappointment and failure and sadness," said Byrne. "You have to show up for practice the next day after you've just had a crushing. This is an unbelievable opportunity for the student-athlete community to demonstrate the value of athletics within education. I've said that over and over to our guys. I told them that we can't wallow. The decision was made; it was out of our control. We've got to be about today and about tomorrow."


-- Your Team for Life --