Winter sports at Shippensburg University are another set of seasons to fall victim to the ongoing COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
Well, most winter sports, that is.
On Nov. 18, the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) officially announced the cancellation of its mandated regular season and championship competition for all winter sports. The announcement followed a vote from league officials.
In the release, officials said the cancellation did not prohibit universities from seeking competition outside of the previously mandated schedule and that individual institutions could still engage in athletically related activities if they choose. The release also said if six or more schools decided to opt-in for a championship season of a specific sport, from either the fall or winter, the PSAC would reinstate a championship schedule.
Following the announcement, the PSAC is now on track to host championship seasons for men’s and women’s swimming and men’s and women’s cross country. SU will be one of at least six institutions participating in the league championships. Schedules are yet to be determined.
Additionally, the PSAC plans to move forward with its scheduled spring sports competition.
“Both swimming and cross country are identified by the NCAA as low-risk sports with relation to COVID-19, which limited some of the testing obligations,” SU Athletics Director Jeff Michaels said. “The basketballs [men’s and women’s] and wrestling are defined as high-risk while indoor track and field is at the intermediate-risk level. They all have higher testing requirements than the NCAA’s low-risk sports.”
“Health and welfare have been at the forefront for all decisions related to PSAC athletics during 2020-21,” Michaels said. “With the current surge in coronavirus cases and the expected spikes around the holidays, we did not expect to be able to move forward appropriately.”
However, Michaels said SU officials still hope to provide student-athletes who had their seasons canceled, with some form of athletic activity. Competition is not completely out of the picture, but Michaels said it all depends on how the next few months shake out.
“We’re hopeful that in addition to our spring sports competing in their normal season that we will see other teams have the opportunity to at least hold meaningful practices during the spring,” Michaels said. “Competition of some sort may be possible, but in reality, the virus will dictate everything that takes place.”
Dom Sleva, a redshirt-junior forward on the SU men’s basketball team, is one of many student-athletes impacted by the recent cancellation.
In his previous two seasons, Sleva was the “sixth-man” off the bench for the Raiders and head coach Chris Fite. But with a handful of players being lost to graduation, this year presented the best opportunity for Sleva to crack the starting lineup.
Sleva proved his consistency the past two years, averaging 8.4 points, 6.0 rebounds and 0.8 assists per game. His .394 three-point percentage also gave the Raiders a needed boost from beyond the arc.
And with SU coming-off an impressive 24-7 season, landing short in the PSAC finals and losing its chance to compete in the NCAA Division II tournament, he was itching to step back on the court.
“It’s hard, it honestly just sucks,” Sleva said regarding the recent announcement. “You know coming into my third year now, I’m starting to see the floor better, my IQ is getting there, and we have a great team that just makes you play better. And I was really looking forward to continuing that and continuing to grow my game.”
Recently, the NCAA granted an extra year of eligibility to the student-athletes who lost their 2020-21 campaign. For Sleva, the news does not necessarily affect him, but his first order of business was to recruit players back for a fifth season.
“Guys like Jake Biss now have the opportunity to come back for a fifth year, so I immediately tried to recruit them back,” Sleva said. “If they come back, it would be tremendous, and we get another really good chance to chase that PSAC title.”
On the other hand, student-athletes like senior swimmer Eric Zimmerman, are grateful for the opportunity to complete their collegiate careers on a high note.
“Coming into the summer we kind of had the feeling that we wouldn’t have a season this year and in a way, we were accepting that,” Zimmerman said. “We wanted to try and mitigate those negative feelings, so when we saw that in fact, we were going to have a season, it came as a pleasant surprise.”
Entering year four, Zimmerman cemented himself as a top distance swimmer for the Raiders. Last season, Zimmerman placed 11th in the 500 freestyle and 15th in 1,650 freestyle at the PSAC Championships. His contribution to the fifth-place finish in the 800 freestyle relay at the PSAC Championships, capped-off a stellar junior campaign.
The upcoming season is not about the accolades for Zimmerman but rather is a “tip of the cap” to a successful four-year career and serves as one last go-around with the senior class to which he has grown so close.
“The competition aspect of a season is obviously very important but being together and seeing my teammates is what I’m most looking forward to this year,” Zimmerman said. “Just that social aspect has been a huge part of our team for the years I’ve been here.”
In the end, Zimmerman said he feels for the athletes who have lost their championship season.
“I just feel awful for them,” he said. “I have a lot of friends who are in this position, some of them being seniors. As swimmers, we’re lucky that we still get that closure to end our collegiate careers.”
“I think the most important thing I can say to them is just try and keep with it. After the original announcement, I can say I had my own so-called “pity party”, where I just didn’t want to do anything. I just can’t imagine what they’re going through right now,” Zimmerman said.