Shippensburg University midfielder Hannah Seifried couldn’t miss the back of the net in her sophomore campaign at the start of the 2020 season.
Scoring a near record-setting pace 19 goals through six games, Seifried and the SU women’s lacrosse team were surging. Despite a 3-3 record, the Raiders knocked off Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) powerhouse Seton Hill University and handily won against Georgian Court University.
Seifried and the Raiders were clicking on all cylinders. It was one of the best starts the program had produced in recent years.
However, that fiery start out of the gate would soon become short lived. In March 2020, the coronavirus pandemic made its appearance, stripping Seifried, the lacrosse team and hundreds of other SU spring sport athletes of their championship season.
“[It was] definitely devastating because we were doing very well last season and you're all just excited to see where we can go and then it was just taken from us,” Seifried said. “No one had any heads up, so it was definitely very devastating.”
The seemingly ceaseless nightmare didn’t stop there. Transitioning into the fall semester, the pandemic continued to pour on uncertainties and concerns, and left many with questions unanswered. Fall and winter athletics eventually fell victim, an additional eight programs being affected.
SU athletics director Jeff Michaels said while the university eyed to get student-athletes back out on the field, hardwood and in the pool, there were still too many unknowns about the virus. The safety and health of student-athletes, coaches and other athletics personnel was the top priority.
“I think the biggest issue was, ‘can we do this in a way that we're supporting the health and well-being of the student athlete,’” Michaels said. “So, I guess you can say that even if there was a ton of testing you still would have the questions of ‘were you still doing things the right way?’”
After an almost one-year hiatus without athletics, SU sports burst back onto the scene in February with softball and cross country seeing the first competitive action Feb. 27 and baseball capping the truncated 2020-21 regular season May 7.
According to Michaels, the main reasoning behind the cancellation of fall and winter sports was the lack of COVID-19 testing. Michaels said the NCAA required all institutions to test its athletes if championship schedules were in place. At the time, SU had symptomatic and asymptomatic nasal swab testing at the Etter Health Center; however, the system couldn’t test athletes consistently that would allow them to compete safely.
In the meantime, student-athletes were still permitted to practice to some capacity, working out with strength and conditioning coach Dennis Kerstetter and participating in outdoor drills. Face coverings were always required and contact was prohibited.
But the road back to game action did come with its share of hiccups.
At the beginning of the spring semester, university officials implemented the Raider Rapid Results (R3) Testing Center to expand testing availability for all students. With the boost, it not only improved campus life as a whole, but it also provided student-athletes with the testing needed to return to their respective sports in a competitive setting.
On a weekly basis, student-athletes received a rapid saliva test to ensure they were safe to compete. Eventually, most student-athletes set into a standard COVID testing routine.
“Once we got into the season, it kind of depended on our game schedule. But for practice and stuff we were testing two, three times a week,” Seifried said. “It all depended on when we had games. Some tests could last a whole week or sometimes we tested three times in the week, just so we could go travel and play somewhere.”
Then came the suspension. In March, university officials suspended R3 after the Pennsylvania Department of Health announced the suspension of the laboratory that SU used to determine results.
In response, SU transitioned its rapid testing to Etter, which still delivered symptomatic and asymptomatic nasal swab testing.
“Our university made massive efforts to test for the health and well-being of all of our students but it obviously had a major impact on student-athletes and made a major effort with R3, and initially with Etter to get things started,” Michaels said. “And then when there was a hiccup with the R3, there was more support from Etter.”
R3 returned in April, announcing a partnership with the Pennsylvania branch of AMI labs. Officials eliminated the saliva test and administered nasal swab tests instead.
SU baseball’s Justin Darden and Chase Zurawski thought it was going to be a typical afternoon on the diamond. Little did they know, the team’s March 11, 2020, contest against Wilmington University would be the last time they’d take the field in a Raiders uniform with a handful of their senior teammates.
For Darden and Zurawski, who just wrapped up their third and fourth seasons with the Raiders, the past year provided its share of lessons learned and silver linings. Both pieced together career campaigns this year while repping the red, white and blue.
“With whatever sport you're doing, it's kind of a common theme, but play like it's your last game,” Darden said. “And that happened to us last year. Three of our seniors, that was their last game of baseball that they played on a Tuesday at Fairchild Field and they didn't even know. I feel like the intensity has definitely been ramped up, whether it's practice, whether it's games and stuff because it could be taken away from you in an instant like that.”
“The silver lining is just don't take anything for granted because at any moment, it could just be taken from you,” Zurawski added. “You don't realize how simple it is to just be able to go to practice every day, or even for me, some of my favorite memories are being able to go on the hotel trips with my team.”
“We weren't able to do that.”
SU softball pitcher Emma Flattery found herself in the same boat. As a freshman, Flattery didn’t experience losing a season at the collegiate level, rather she lost her senior high school campaign. However, through the fall and winter, the Macomb, Michigan, native and the softball crew — along with the other spring sport teams — found themselves playing a different game: The waiting game. There was still speculation surrounding the reappearance of spring athletics.
“It was amazing because from the fall, we really weren't sure how it was going to go,” Flattery said of having a spring season. “But after we got back here and kind of set up regulations with masks and everything, it was a blast.”
The spring semester also served as the light at the end of the tunnel for SU coaches. Kerstetter — who worked firsthand with all 20 SU programs and witnessed the steady progression of sports returning since the fall — said the pandemic-ridden year was unlike any season(s) he’s been a part of before.
Joining the Raiders’ athletics staff Aug. 3, 2019, Kerstetter has yet to experience a full year of sports in the Cumberland Valley. On top of that, this spring was his first true go-around as last season was cut short about a month in.
“I didn't even get a chance to enjoy any softball or baseball or track events or anything like that,” Kerstetter said of spring 2020. “So, it was different in that sense. But then, holistically, for like a year, for me, it was so weird to not have football in the fall — not have basketball games going on in December. So, it was definitely a different sports year for me.”
“And that's just because at the end of the day, the biggest joy I get out of my job is seeing my athletes compete at a high level and enjoy competing in the weight room. The weight room is such a small piece to their overall student-athlete experience and some of them take it more seriously than others. But at the end of the day, they didn't come here to be weightlifters. They came here to play their sport.”
The same goes for SU lacrosse head coach Nicole Meehan. At the reins of the Raiders lacrosse program, Meehan is all too familiar with having a season come to a screeching halt, let alone after an impressive first six games. In lieu of the hardships the ongoing pandemic brought and continues to bring, Meehan said there’s a lot to recollect over the course of the year.
“ One hundred percent,” said Meehan when asked if this season felt more different than those in years past. “It’s not just the lacrosse Xs and Os. You always have a lot of stress with that and with the game day preparation, the practice preparation, the workload that comes with making sure you're prepared as a coach and the players are prepared as best as they can be.”
“But everything else on top of it was a lot of extra work as well. The constant temperature checks, the COVID testing, making sure on a COVID basis we were checking off all the boxes that we needed to be checking off before we set foot out on the field and started practicing.”
It’s no secret the return of the roaring crowd at Seth Grove Stadium on a Saturday home game or the field hockey team vying for another national championship will be a welcomed sight come fall.
Outside of spectators packing seats to the brim and teams making their charge at hardware, student-athletes and coaches have much to carry with them into next season including the knowledge of overcoming adversity, what it means to work as a team off the field and the overwhelming desire to compete in the sport they love.
For coaches like Kerstetter and Meehan, this topsy-turvy year served as a way to grow in more ways than one. It was a year that opened their eyes to new coaching avenues.
“Everything,” said Meehan on what she can take from this season for years down the road. “I think looking back at previous years, when you're in season, your concern is your team and how we can be successful and this year there was a lot of outside newness that you had to worry about, too.”
“Every day is a new day. Just because one day went one way and the other day went another, you have to be able to reset. And I think at the end of the day, the most important part is providing that energy to the team.”
And for Seifried — who recently garnered PSAC East Athlete of the Year and All-PSAC First Team honors for her performance on the turf — the opportunity to throw on a Raiders jersey, lace up the cleats and strap on a helmet once more is all that’s needed.
“Being out there with all those girls, they make this college experience, playing with them or just playing in general, makes it 10 times better for me. Being with them is the best time I ever have,” Seifried said. “I never take anything for granted. That was also the thing that we all said going into the season. Every second you get on the field, whether you're a starter or reliever, cherish those seconds because after college, we're all not going to have them. But even last year showed us we don't get them. It's not guaranteed.”