A Spring Without Sports Breeds Commitment

Three University student-athletes discuss a spring without sports.

From left: women's lacrosse's Jill Henson, softball's Jennifer Sweeney and baseball's Connor Harding. All three had their seasons cut short in the spring due to the cancelation of the remainder of the 2019-20 athletics year.
From left: women's lacrosse's Jill Henson, softball's Jennifer Sweeney and baseball's Connor Harding. All three had their seasons cut short in the spring due to the cancelation of the remainder of the 2019-20 athletics year.

As the calendar turned to March in the John Long Center, The University of Scranton’s Department of Athletics went into overdrive.

This time of the year is usually the busiest for staff. The winter sports season winds down and leads into the spring season, a time of not only better weather, but the chance to see student-athletes in nine different sports compete through the month of May.

But as days ticked away, the world was flipped upside down. COVID-19 had arrived in the U.S. By March 18, all spring sport seasons throughout the Landmark Conference had been canceled, bringing a sudden and abrupt end to a season that had, in earnest, really not even begun.

Recently, three student-athletes with junior eligibility in 2020 — Jill Henson of the women’s lacrosse team, Jennifer Sweeney of the softball team and Connor Harding of the baseball team — shared with us their thoughts on the end of their respective seasons and the promise of a new year to come.

An Abrupt End

All three student-athletes received the news that their respective seasons would end in similar fashions.

Henson received the news (officially) after going home to Baldwinsville, New York, outside of Syracuse on March 18, but she knew the worst was to come after an emotional meeting with her coaches and teammates before leaving campus in which the Royals’ senior class was honored in front of the team. 

Sweeney (at left) described being told that the softball season was canceled, first when the Royals’ annual spring break trip was canceled and then when the official announcement came down. Harding, in a meeting with baseball head coach Mike Bartoletti in which the Royals’ skipper simply stated that “things do not look good.”

The week before the University went on spring break was chaotic for all spring student-athletes and coaches. To ease the tension, the head coaches of men’s and women’s lacrosse, along with baseball and softball, organized a fun practice at Fitzpatrick Field. But, at the end of the practice, reality set in for everyone who took part.

The NCAA had announced that not only would remaining winter championships across Divisions be canceled, but spring championships, as well.

“At that time, it felt that the season was over, but I also did not want to accept that thought,” said Sweeney. “We tried to spend as much time together as we could because we didn’t know when we would all be back together on campus.”

A week after departing for spring break, the Landmark Conference canceled the rest of the spring season. A new reality now set in for all spring student-athletes as they began schoolwork from their homes.

The Challenges of Being Home

With their junior seasons ended, the trio of spring sports stars now set out on the challenges of quarantine. First, getting to the end of a rigorous academic slate and second, staying in shape with no gyms or fitness centers open due to the pandemic.

“Having class online was tough,” said Harding. “It was a big transition for both the professors and students, but everyone did their best to make it work.” 

“The biggest challenge of having classes online was getting motivated to sit down and get work done,” said Sweeney. “Some of my classes were pre-recorded lectures, I had the ability to watch them whenever, pause for breaks, and to rewind if I missed something. Therefore, assignments were taking longer than they should have, which was frustrating.”

“One of the main challenges that I had was with being online with exams,” said Henson (at left). “I spent a lot of time teaching myself the material to prepare for the different exams that I had, which was very stressful.”

In terms of working out, Harding and Sweeney worked on mechanics on local fields. For cardio, Sweeney began using a bicycle again, while Harding utilized a free weight set in his home.

Henson did similar things (running around her neighborhood, using local fields to work on her game), but also began doing daily workouts posted on YouTube and fitness apps. She also got re-acquainted with another sport — golf.

“[Golf] is something that I love to do, but I haven’t had the time to focus on it in a long time,” she said. “With the free time that I now have, I’ve been working on getting better at golf and for me it’s a great workout and gets me outside for a good part of my day.”

The New Normal

As the days of summer vacation began to tick away, Henson, Sweeney and Harding could not wait to get back to Scranton, even if life was not completely back to normal.

When the fall semester began on Aug. 17, the Royals Safe Together plan was in full effect on campus, meaning that everyone would have to wear masks, social distancing would be in place in classrooms and dining facilities and many classes would be instructed online.

To say this was yet another adjustment to take part in was an understatement. 

“It is strange though, to think that this is our new normal,” Henson said. But, it has felt so good being able to be back at school. Seeing all the new protocols that have been put into place is good to see because it shows how much the University cares about its students and their safety.”

Sweeney said that wearing a mask at all times was an adjustment, but she was glad to be back. 

“Now that we are back on campus, I’ve enjoyed being able to stop and talk to friends on the way to class and have been meeting up with friends throughout the day to eat or grab a coffee and catch up,” she said.

Both Sweeney and Henson have maintained their physical fitness level since coming back, even though fall practices for both sports have yet to officially begin due to the pandemic.

“Since being back on campus, I have been going to the field to practice, running on the Heritage Trail, and going to the fitness center to stay in shape to stay ready for the upcoming season,” Sweeney said.

Henson has taken a similar approach.

“Since getting back to school, I have been going for runs in the Hill Section as much as I can,” she said. “I have also been going down to the field to do sprint workouts and to shoot in order to stay in shape and to continue to work on my game until our fall practices begin.”

The Promise of a New Day

As Henson, Harding and Sweeney have shown, even though the games aren’t being played at Scranton’s athletic facilities right now, the work is still being done by all Scranton student-athletes amongst unusual conditions.

At press time, the spring 2021 season for Henson, Sweeney and Harding is still a go, and all three are eager to get back out on the field and chase Landmark Conference titles in their respective sports.

“The entire team worked extremely hard this past year, so it was tough to not be able to see any results,” Harding (at left) said. “The last few months, however, have been an opportunity for us to continue to work on our games, and I can't wait to see which guys make big jumps."

“I am going to feel more motivated than ever,” said Henson. “I know that I am also going to feel extremely determined as well because I will not only be playing for the current team, but also for the seniors who were unable to finish out their full four years as student-athletes.”

“Our team has always been driven to succeed, but with last season being taken away from us, I think we are going to come back with a totally different mindset,” said Sweeney. “Knowing that the game can be ripped away from us in the blink of an eye, and remembering that feeling of being told we would no longer be competing this season will not only make us more grateful for every opportunity to play, but it will also be what motivates and drives us to continue working toward success no matter what challenge we may face.”

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