College Athletes Reflect On Life During COVID

Westhampton Beach graduate Dylan Laube is in his junior season at the University of New Hampshire, trying to adjust to a new normal in the time of Covid-19. He and his UNH teammates are hoping they can play an abbreviated football season in the spring, and were allowed to practice this fall. GIL TALBOT

Heading into his junior year as a running back for the University of New Hampshire football team, Dylan Laube was intent on taking a bigger leadership role on the team. He wanted to use his years of experience at the collegiate level to help lead by example, particularly for younger players, and be a positive influence both on and off the field in what he felt could be a big year for the team.

In any normal year, taking on a bigger leadership role might entail pushing harder on the field and in the weight room, settling disputes between teammates, giving a pep talk in the locker room or at halftime. In 2020, for a college athlete like Laube, it has meant resisting the urge to attend parties on weekends or congregate in large groups, and helping teammates remain accountable to that sacrifice as well. There’s also the Herculean effort of keeping up morale in the midst of a global pandemic that has postponed the football season until the spring, leading to long weeks of fall practice sessions different from what they’ve always known, without the promise of game day.

Like Laube, fellow Westhampton Beach graduate McKinley Skala, a sophomore at SUNY Geneseo, has tried her best to stay positive and support her teammates in any way she can, after their women’s soccer season was also postponed, tentatively, to the spring. The team recently concluded fall practice sessions, and now must wait and see if infection rates stay low enough to allow for an abbreviated season in the spring.

Laube and Skala both said they felt fortunate to be back on the field with their teammates for practice. Like many other college athletes competing in traditional fall sports, their competitive seasons have been postponed, but starting in early October, they were allowed to return to a somewhat normal practice schedule, with certain COVID safety restrictions in place. They’ve done their best to try to keep a positive outlook over the past several months. It’s been a bumpy ride, starting when they were forced to leave campus in the middle of offseason training and practices in the spring. Over the summer, they received word that their fall seasons were postponed, and with that the trajectory they’d expected their collegiate playing careers to follow was thrown into chaos. Last week, over separate Zoom calls from their college towns, both Laube and Skala gave insight into what it’s like to be a college athlete in the middle of a global pandemic. They spoke candidly about the disappointments and challenges they’ve faced and how they try to cope with them, the value of the kind of built in support system they can access as athletes, and the unexpected silver linings they’ve experienced over the past several months of upheaval at such a crucial time in their lives.

Hopes Dashed, And A New Normal

Laube — who led the Hurricanes to the Long Island Championship in 2017 — had been excited for his junior season at New Hampshire. He’d had a successful career thus far, earning freshman All-American honors as one part of a three-running back system, and was poised to have an even bigger impact on the field, for a team he felt had a solid chance to compete for the Colonial Athletic Association conference title. Then came word, just a week after most of the team had returned to campus in July, that the season was canceled. Laube said the team was “devastated.”

“It was just a bombshell, right in my face,” he said of the announcement.

For Skala, the cancellation of the fall season was another layer of disappointment after the team had been unable to complete its offseason training and game schedule in the spring.

McKinley Skala, on piggy back, far right, with her SUNY Geneseo women’s soccer teammates last year. This year, as a sophomore, she’s been dealing with a cancelled fall season and hoping the team can play in the spring.

The Geneseo women’s soccer team had advanced to the finals of the SUNYAC conference tournament and earned an at-large bid to the NCAA Division II tournament in her freshman year, losing to Cortland. And while the squad lost six seniors to graduation from that team, it meant that Skala — who saw significant time coming off the bench last fall — was poised to make an even bigger impact in her role as an outside midfielder.

Both Laube and Skala learned they had to quickly pivot from disappointment to action, and adjust to a new and long list of rules designed to get them back out on the practice field, and in classes, safely. That adjustment was not always easy. For Skala, figuring out how to balance virtual classes — a mix of live online teaching and other assignments with deadlines — with practice was tricky at first. For soccer, the team was initially divided into “pods” of eight to 10 players, practicing on different days of the week, before being allowed to play full team scrimmages, with rules about when they did and did not have to wear face coverings.

Laube praised his school’s handling of the virus, and expressed gratitude for going to a college in a region that has one of the lowest case counts in the country. Athletes were tested twice a week, and students at the school participated in a hybrid class model, with some in-person instruction. The football team was allowed to start practicing during the first week of October. At that time, they were on the field three times weekly, and spent the rest of the time watching film or doing strength and conditioning work. The players relied on plastic face shields on their helmets for extra protection, and face coverings when helmets were off.

If numbers remain low, the team will play a six-game season in the spring, with the Colonial Athletic Conference split into North and South divisions to avoid air travel and accommodate the shorter season. The winners of each conference division would advance to the playoffs.

As is the case with most colleges, both SUNY Geneseo and UNH have offered an extra year of eligibility for student-athletes, understanding that the seasons this year, if they happen at all, will be abbreviated and will not represent the normal experience they had signed up for. Whether student athletes will want or be able to extend their stay at college another year will of course be an individual choice, but Laube and Skala agreed it is nice to at least have that option.

Unprecedented Sacrifice, And Leaning On Each Other

While Laube and Skala were happy to be working out on the field again, they acknowledged there is also new “work” to be done after practice hours that can be challenging — namely, going against the instincts most people their age have to be in close contact with their peers at all times. Skala lives on campus this year in a suite with several roommates, and said she’s grateful to have more than just one other person in her living quarters. They watch The Bachelorette together, have had many more movie nights than they would have had last year, and they’ve even gone apple picking just to get away from campus for a bit.

When it comes to socializing outside their group, communication has been key, Skala said.

“We’ve been really cautious,” she said. “We always have meetings together to discuss what’s good and bad and the smart decision to make.”

Skala said that living with six other teammates has been helpful when it comes to their mental and emotional health as well.

“We’re all open with each other, and talk about when we’re having trouble with things,” she said. “I was getting really stressed when I’d look at all the things I had to do for the week, and I’d make this big list, and one of my friends suggested just planning day by day what I wanted to do, and that helped. And I would help them and let them know things that helped me.”

Staying on track and resisting temptations that could jeopardize the health and safety of the team has been a matter of a willful perspective shift for Laube. He admitted that it’s “very hard” not to go out and socialize in traditional ways, but said he and his teammates have tried their best to stay focused.

“It’s almost like football is our job,” he said. “We’re here to be student athletes. We love the game and would probably sacrifice a lot to play football.”

Spending time with other athletes helps as well, Laube said, because there is a feeling that they also have that extra boost of motivation to stay safe that maybe regular students don’t have. But, he admitted it can be isolating as well.

“Usually in the fall, you go out and have fun after the game, maybe go to a party and meet some new kids,” he said. “But you can’t really meet anyone new now. It’s definitely difficult sometimes.”

Mixed emotions abound for both Skala and Laube this year. The painful sting of missing a season — when there are only four in an athlete’s career to begin with — is rough, Skala said. Game day always helped take off the edge of any academic stress, but she pointed out that having more time to focus on her schoolwork is bittersweet, because it’s come at the cost of the sport she loves.

Both Laube and Skala expressed gratitude for the built-in support system that’s one of the big perks of being a student athlete. They’ve benefited from strong guidance from their coaches, as well as academic support staff. Mandatory study hall sessions helped players stay on track, Laube said. Skala added that her coach had a close personal experience with the virus, and was able to provide valuable perspective because of that.

Silver Linings and Lessons Learned

Neither Laube or Skala complained much as they sat in their respective rooms, discussing the various ways the pandemic has uprooted nearly every aspect of their daily existence, at what is supposed to be the most thrilling time of their lives. Sports is enough of a character-building experience in normal times; they didn’t need a virus to come along to further strengthen their moral fiber or enhance their ability to deal with adversity. But rather than reject the opportunities for growth that the coronavirus unceremoniously dumped at their feet, they seem to have tried to embrace them.

Laube spent the summer months in Westhampton Beach maintaining his fitness with regular workouts, both at the high school track with Hurricanes assistant football coach Cole Magner, and with trainers from Revolution Fitness, based in Sayville.

Laube and Skala both channeled their competitive instincts into family game nights during that time as well, battling for supremacy alongside their equally competitive siblings and parents. In the Skala household in East Quogue, Mr. Skala was ultimately declared the lockdown game night champion, earning an old fantasy football championship belt that had been re-purposed as the prize for that title. Skala laughed while recalling how her parents had been determined to teach her and her siblings more old school games, like Yahtzee, Clue and Parcheesi. Skala said that the days were often long at home, with her parents — both teachers in the Eastport-South Manor School District — and one of her older sisters, Madison, also engaged in remote teaching in the William Floyd School District. (Her oldest sister, Kennedy, is also a teacher, but lives in Virginia). On top of that, McKinley was one of three Skala siblings doing daily online classes at home. Her brother, Tyler, is a junior and member of the wrestling team at SUNY Oneonta, while her younger brother, Grant, is a senior and wrestler at Westhampton Beach High School. Office hours at the Skala household during that time ran from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and a strict silence policy in the dining room was enforced. The Skala family, getting the most out of whatever they paid for internet access at the time, relied on game nights and movie nights to unwind from the stress of those days, and while there were some “disputes” that needed to be settled at times, Skala said she was grateful for the family time as well.

It was similar for Laube, who was home with his parents and brothers — Devin, who graduated from Endicott College last year and was working in the Westhampton Beach School District, and younger brother Deegan, a high school junior who, like his older brothers, is also an athlete. Spending time with them helped lift his spirits, Laube said, although he added that, like in the Skala household, game nights sometimes got heated.

“We can’t play Monopoly any more,” he said with a laugh.

Back in New Hampshire, Laube continued to find positive outlets for energy, or ways to distract himself and connect with teammates. They played video games, watched TV shows — Peaky Blinders and It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia were two favorites. Skala joined the Student Athlete Advisory Committee, and late last month, signed online for a mental health roundtable discussion with current students, Geneseo alumni, and former teachers, where they discussed mental health issues and coping strategies. Skala learned what signs to look for in a teammate or friend that might be silently struggling with any number of mental or emotional issues.

At the start of 2020, Skala probably thought she’d be honing her soccer skills and helping lead her team to victories on the field rather than sitting in on Zoom calls and learning how to spot an eating disorder in a friend. Laube probably thought he’d be spending more time dodging tacklers from opposing teams, and less time getting to know his new air fryer (which he said, for the record, makes delicious grilled chicken). There have already been so many unexpected moments in a school year that is still young, but Skala and Laube say that what they have learned, even if it was unexpected, is still valuable. Asked what they think the takeaway from the experience will be when they look back on it in five or 10 years, their answers reflected the kind of approach they’re trying to take right now.

“It’s good to look forward and just stay positive and keep your head up through everything,” Skala said.

“I’ve learned to just enjoy the little things,” Laube said. “The small moments, like being back with family in the spring, or even just being back here with friends. We can’t do half the stuff we did last year, and they were small things, but it was stuff I will always remember. You just can’t take anything for granted.”