It’s a hard fall semester for all cadets, with mask requirements, social distancing, daily health checks and new ways of learning that vary from class to class. But for the Institute’s NCAA athletes, many of whom came to VMI specifically for the opportunity to be part of a Division I athletic team, there’s the added stress of not knowing when they’ll compete again. In many ways, athletes are playing a mental game that’s as tough as the physical game could ever be.
Coming off a 2019 season that saw the most wins since 2003, members of the Keydet football team were especially looking forward to a return to the gridiron this fall. Players had been on post approximately a week when the bad but somewhat expected news came: The Southern Conference would postpone competition in most fall sports until the spring.
“I was pretty upset because I’d worked my tail off this summer,” said Warren Dabney ’22, a defensive lineman and psychology major. “It was really heartbreaking, but there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel, so we’ll eventually play.”
Thankfully, the Southern Conference has not banned practices, so members of the football team are still practicing regularly, although broken up into smaller groups than they normally would be.
Dabney related that the team’s defensive line coach, Pat Kuntz, has been telling his players, “This is a marathon, not a sprint. Take it at a nice and easy pace and eventually, you’ll get there.”
Head coach Scott Wachenheim has echoed that message, according to Dabney, telling his team, “We’ve just got to keep it slow and steady because eventually we’re going to be able to play. We need to stay focused on what we want, on our team goals and stay persistent.”
Like Dabney, offensive lineman Nick Hartnett ’22 sees a silver lining in the COVID-19 pandemic’s dark cloud.
“Coach Wachenheim and the team, very early on, even before I got here, instilled team values of grit, brotherhood and purpose, and I think that’s very relevant today, given the circumstances,” said Hartnett, a computer science major. “We almost see this as an opportunity to make up for lost time.”
Missing the spring season was challenging enough, Hartnett explained – and then when cadets were sent home in March, most gyms and other fitness facilities were closed, leaving players with few options for weightlifting.
“I had to buy used weights and build my own squat rack in our driveway,” said Hartnett.
But when he came back to VMI in early August, Hartnett could see that others had been working just as hard while they were away as he had.
“I saw a huge improvement in the team,” Hartnett noted. “The difference between the team my freshman year and the team now, just from a purely physical, dialed-in perspective – it’s night and day.”
Playing in the spring, Hartnett believes, will give the team time to improve even more – and rats will be out of the Rat Line by then, thus giving them an increased ability to focus.
The pandemic, Hartnett commented, has taught him the importance of leading by example when it comes to following public health recommendations.
“A lot of people don’t enjoy wearing the masks, and staying on top of each other about this, but if anyone on the team tests positive, the whole team is done with practice and lifting for two weeks,” he explained. “[Mask wearing] is the rule. I’ll follow it.”
Men’s soccer midfielder Richie Quispe ’21 has also drawn strength from his coaches this fall – and like the football team, the men’s and women’s soccer teams are also practicing this fall in preparation for a spring season.
“[Head coach Max Watson] shows no lack of confidence that we’ll be able to compete,” said Quispe, who’s majoring in biology and hopes to commission into the Marine Corps.
On a personal level, Quispe has chosen to let go of what he can’t control.
“Some of these things are out of my control, and so I’m understanding that and moving forward the best I can with the things I can control,” he stated. “We’re in a time where everything is changing, and you can’t get too caught up with the small details.”
Women’s soccer midfielder Natalie Carpenter ’21 is also waiting to see what the spring season brings. She’s played soccer since she was 4 years old, and the ups and downs of August weighed on her heavily.
Carpenter and her teammates received the news that there would be no fall season approximately two weeks after they’d arrived. A normally laid-back assistant coach suddenly turned serious, Carpenter recalled, and told players to report to the Corps Physical Training Facility for a meeting with Dr. David Diles, athletic director.
“We kind of all knew,” Carpenter recalled. “It was pouring down rain, too, which had a very dramatic effect.”
Diles told the players that they’d need to head home before reporting back to VMI Aug. 26, but Carpenter was able to stay because she’s a member of the S6 staff, which oversees cadet NCAA athletes.
Eventually, the team was able to reunite and resume practice. Carpenter finds it helps her mental state.
“It’s kind of a stress relief from this place,” the international studies major said of playing soccer. “It clears my head a lot. I love all of my teammates. Being with them is my favorite thing.”
One of seven seniors on the women’s soccer team, Carpenter is grateful that now she has a chance to play her favorite sport until possibly April, rather than November, which is when the season would have ended if the team had been able to play its regular season. But at the same time, there’s the gnawing worry there won’t be a season at all.
“We know we’ll practice, but we don’t know if we’ll ever play soccer again,” she commented. “But I think we’re doing a pretty good job of handling it, and I don’t think our level of practice has dropped or anything. We’re all just playing right now for the hope of spring.”
Mary Price VMI Communications & Marketing