Takeaways: Middlebury Athletics webinar on Covid-19

By Blaise Siefer

Tuesday’s panelists. Clockwise from top left: Katharine DeLorenzo, Jeff Brown, Erin Quinn, and Bob Ritter. (Courtesy: Middlebury Athletics)

Four coaches and administrators at Middlebury participated in a webinar this Tuesday to discuss how Covid-19 has impacted athletics. From altered recruiting processes to silver linings, the panelists compared and contrasted their past 12 months. 

The four panelists included Katharine DeLorenzo, head women’s field hockey coach; Jeff Brown, head men’s basketball coach; Erin Quinn ’86, athletic director; and Bob Ritter ’82, head men’s football coach.

Here are six takeaways from Tuesday’s webinar: 

Last fall went better than expected

All three coaches on the webinar — DeLorenzo, Ritter and Brown — indicated that last semester was surprisingly constructive and engaging. 

“It was a much better experience than any of us expected,” Ritter said. “It was a great fall that we actually enjoyed. It allowed us to step back and slow down a bit.”

While Ritter’s football team shifted focus to their “core values,” DeLorenzo said the field hockey practices were “simplified” and “enjoyable.” Without typical social and athletic distractions, the team found time to hone in on the personal side of things, learning more about each other and broadening their perspectives.

Coach Brown reiterated these statements, declaring that the fall was a “great bonding time” for the men’s basketball team. The team also returned to working on basketball fundamentals, like shooting, in training.

An unconventional recruiting process introduced lasting changes

As coaches navigated the pandemic with their current teams, they also had to find new ways to interact with prospective student-athletes. Without the ability to attend live matches or host recruits on campus, the pandemic shifted the recruitment process online.

Zoom emerged as a key tool in this process, providing coaches a platform to meet athletes and their families. Coaches also leaned into highlight reels and live streamed games as an alternative to watching games in-person. 

While virtual interaction was a change, the coaches noted that it may have actually proved more constructive than in-person recruitment in past years.

“We could communicate very easily with prospective students,” DeLorenzo said. “If anything, the communication piece has improved and grown because it’s one of the only things we’ve been able to do throughout [the pandemic].”

“Our recruits actually got an even better feel for what we were all about,” Ritter said. “We had a great reach.”

Each coach took a different approach to how many athletes they recruited, partially influenced by what their current roster was doing. For instance, the field hockey team recruited a smaller group than usual considering the sizable number of players who deferred a semester or year. 

“We didn’t keep it even,” DeLorenzo said. “We’re only growing this next year by one or two people on the roster instead of four, five or six players.”

Meanwhile, the football team didn’t make any drastic changes to the size of their recruiting class, a strategy informed by the temporary pause of a “squad size” limitation that the league traditionally upholds. “We are planning on keeping a larger team,” Ritter said.

Diversity, inclusion and mental health efforts take center stage

A large portion of the webinar was devoted to discussing the diversity, inclusion and mental health initiatives that the school has undertaken this year. Without typical demands of competition this academic year, teams were able to take a step back and focus on broader organizational issues. 

For example, one initiative was the social media campaign “Leaning into Discomfort,” an initiative sponsored by the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee. The Committee has published frequent episodes on topics such as race and identity in Middlebury Athletics. 

There’s also been a push to formalize the Student-Athletes of Color (SAOC) organization, which emphasizes diversity and inclusion on campus. Every NESCAC school has established an SAOC group, and they meet monthly to share what they’ve learned. 

Coaches also went through a 21-day allyship program with 21 lessons that explored topics of identity, privilege and bias.

“It was something done by all the athletic coaches and staff members at all the NESCAC members,” Brown explained. “It was really beneficial to go through that process––personally, I learned a lot about myself. It’s been a very productive year.” 

As for mental health, the panelists all noted that it’s been an issue that has affected their athletes — and the community-at-large — for years. To help combat these struggles, Ritter has tried to move as many meetings away from Zoom as he can, acknowledging the distance and alienation that the online platform can create. 

Meanwhile, DeLorenzo said that the field hockey team has organized “Zoom dinners” as an opportunity to convene, share stories and laugh with one another. 

Competition will look much different this spring

Athletic Director Erin Quinn went into detail about the upcoming spring sports season at Middlebury, which will see seven teams compete in the NESCAC. Decisions on which teams would compete were contingent on squad sizes; for example, the men’s and women’s lacrosse teams were unable to play, since they both had insufficient numbers to field a team.

Quinn said that face coverings will be mandated for all athletes during competition this spring, and reiterated that the college upholds “stricter” policy than other schools might. For away trips, buses will be filled at 50 % capacity and there will be no stops along the way. Teams also won’t stay at hotels, only scheduled to compete against teams they can travel to and from in one day.

As for testing, Middlebury athletes, trainers and coaches will receive three PCR tests in the week leading up to a game and will also get a rapid test on game day. 

“An athlete at a particular school could do three PCR tests a week, plus if they compete on a Saturday and Sunday, two rapid antigen tests as well, so they might be getting tested as many as five days a week,” Quinn said. 

Fans will be able to livestream games for the men’s baseball, women’s softball and women’s tennis teams. Golf and track and field competitions will not be live streamed. 

Zoom is probably here to stay

 All three coaches on the webinar expressed their satisfaction with Zoom, indicating that it’s a tool they’ll look to employ even when things return to normal. 

Even though recruits will soon be allowed to visit campus again, Brown said that Zoom might still be their go-to option for prospective athletes who live far away from Middlebury. Zoom would also help prospective students who might not have the resources to visit Vermont in the recruitment process, Brown noted. 

DeLorenzo also mentioned her interest in keeping Zoom tethered to her recruiting process, explaining that it’s allowed her to create stronger bonds with recruits and their families. Ritter echoed this sentiment, adding that Zoom has allowed alumni to join in on the recruiting process by hopping on a call with a recruit. 

Next fall, the hope is to return to a ‘new normal’

When asked about next fall, Quinn was optimistic that athletics can return to a “new normal.” Quinn anticipates that fall sports might include some limitations, but did not specify anticipated restrictions. 

Quinn’s declaration falls in line with President Patton’s announcement a few weeks ago.

“Our hope and the plan is that many of the activities that we’re used to are going to be back,” Quinn said. “Hopefully we can get on a good trajectory here as a country and stay the course and keep that path going toward the fall.”