By Gabriela Carroll
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, almost every sports league has ceased operations indefinitely, including the NCAA. For local East End college athletes, the news was yet another disappointing development in the lead-up to students’ return home.
Chris Bender, last year’s valedictorian at Westhampton Beach High School, is a freshman playing lacrosse at Williams College. Bender said he was devastated when he learned about the season’s cancellation.
“Going into this year’s season we had a motto: Just Us, Just Now,” Bender said. “It represented the fact that we had to focus on the moment, and that the upcoming year was ours for the taking. We had an enormous amount of hope for the season, and it was pretty heartbreaking to have it taken away from us.”
Bender’s team heard that the season was cancelled during practice, after their warm up. Bender said they ended that practice with an inter-team scrimmage to spend their last moments together having fun.
Bender said he is still training individually, but his team had a wrap up meeting over Zoom last Sunday, in which coaches distributed season awards, and players delivered their final words and selected the captains for the next season.
For John Loeffel, a Queens native, the news of the season’s cancellation came in increments — first, their first track meet was called off, and then, the season.
Loeffel, a sophomore at Seton Hall University, said his first thought was for their seniors, and how they missed their opportunity to run in their final race. Despite the NCAA’s ruling that spring athletes who were seniors could receive an extra year of eligibility, Loeffel said he didn’t know of any on his team that were planning on exercising that option.
Chris Merle, a Westhampton native, missed his second consecutive lacrosse season at the University of Virginia due to the COVID-19 pandemic after tearing his meniscus last year.
“It was obviously tough being injured last year,” Merle said. “I had some high goals for this season, but I’m a true believer that everything happens for a reason, so I’m looking forward to next season.”
Merle’s team, the reigning NCAA national champions, meets weekly on Zoom to watch film. Merle said he enjoys those calls, because after spending every day with his teammates for seven months, it’s a comfort to still be able to see their faces while separated.
The University of Virginia dismissed its students from campus very soon after the season was called off, and Merle said he didn’t have a proper chance to say goodbye to all of his teammates and friends.
“The day we got all the information, it was like, the NBA’s canceled, all that stuff,” Merle said. “I had a feeling in the back of my mind like, we’re going down, but I wasn’t sure. When my coach told us in the locker room, it was a sudden feeling of shock. It was wild because I didn’t get to say goodbye to my teammates or anything, just get off campus, get home, be safe.”
All three athletes said continuing to train at home has given them a piece of consistency during an otherwise very different time. Merle said the structure of his training helped him settle into the routine of online school more easily. Loeffel said his team is staying in contact through giving each other workouts.
“Being away from a team environment can be pretty challenging sometimes,” Bender said. “I’m using this time to focus on honing my own individual skills so that I’ll be more than ready when it comes time to hopefully be able to compete again in the fall.”