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Commentary: A retrospection on spring sports during the pandemic

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Courtesy of Patrick LaPorte/The Review
Through postponements, cancellations and protocols, varsity sports at the university were forced to navigate shortened and unique spring schedules.

BY
Managing Sports Editor

Through postponements, cancellations, protocols, social distancing and more, varsity sports at the university successfully completed their seasons in the spring, no matter how short or unorthodox those seasons became.

As many spring sports had just begun, the men’s and women’s basketball teams were closing out their seasons in postseason play. The men’s squad took a season-ending loss in the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) Tournament’s first round to end the year at 7-8 (5-4 CAA), while the women’s team fell in the finals of the CAA Tournament after a record-breaking season at 24-5 (16-2 CAA).

In her fourth year as women’s basketball head coach, Natasha Adair led her team to the Women’s National Invitation Tournament, and their success continued there, where they won three games before falling in the semifinals. Amidst individual awards for coach Adair, forward Jasmine Dickey and others, the team accomplished something that no other CAA basketball team did: they played a full 18-game conference slate while following protocols.

Another semifinal appearance came from the football program, which played in a modified spring season with the rest of the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS). Behind a top defense, quarterback Nolan Henderson and running back Dejoun Lee, the Blue Hens (7-1, 4-0 CAA) finished the regular season as CAA champions.

Then, in the FCS playoffs, they secured wins against Sacred Heart and No. 4 Jacksonville State to advance to coach Danny Rocco’s first ever FCS semifinal game with Delaware. There, they fell short against eventual runner-up South Dakota State. Still, the playoff run highlighted a season full of surprise and unexpected success, which Rocco and Henderson hope to carry to the fall.

“The turnaround to [next fall] is gonna be quick, and our guys are going to be hungry,” Rocco said after the team’s season-ending loss.

“We had great improvements this year, but the disappointment of [the season’s end] is something we can use to take that next step,” Henderson said. “[With] the oddity of playing a spring season followed by a fall season, we’re going to have to adapt and get healthy.”

Other sports that typically are played in the fall were pushed back to the spring just as the football season. The men’s soccer team was able to play five spring games, finishing 2-1-2, with two of their seven games being canceled for COVID-19 protocols. Women’s soccer had better fortune, as they played the scheduled slate of seven games, ending with a 3-4 record.

For the field hockey program, a season moved from the fall to the spring did not get in the way of another stellar year. After a 4-3 regular season, the Blue Hens defeated No. 2 William & Mary and No. 1 James Madison in the CAA Tournament to win the conference championship and qualify for the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Tournament.

Delaware lost to Northwestern in the first round, but the playoff berth still stands as a testament to the program’s winning culture. It was head coach Rolf van de Kerkhof’s seventh NCAA Tournament appearance and seventh CAA Championship in nine years at the university.

Other sports that had their fall seasons canceled or pushed back included men’s and women’s swimming and diving, men’s and women’s golf, women’s rowing and volleyball. Men’s swimming and diving finished fifth in the CAA Championship, while the women’s team notched fourth. 

The men’s golf program finished sixth in the CAA, with the women’s team placing third in the conference tournament. The rowing team only competed in five regular season invitations, but scored their highest point total (23) at the CAA Championships, placing third of seven teams.

Meanwhile, the volleyball team had to navigate four canceled matches en route to a 4-6 season. The ten matches they did play are around one third of the total typically played during a normal season without an ongoing pandemic.

Yet another point of success for varsity athletics came in the form of the men’s and women’s tennis teams. Both teams notched seven wins in shortened schedules under head coach Pablo Montana. While a normal year would have the teams play from Sept. to Oct. and Jan. to April, Montana mentioned the team carried an “attitude of gratitude” during the COVID-19-affected season.

“Even though our season was a little modified, we were just grateful to be out there and competing,” Montana said. “Overall, it was a very fun [and] special season.”

Postseason play did not end on a high note, however, as both teams lost in the CAA quarterfinals to lower-seeded opponents in James Madison on the men’s side and UNC-Wilmington for the women.

“Our philosophy is to remember the pain [of losing],” Montana said. “We’re absolutely going to use the losses as fuel and fire for the upcoming season.”

On the diamond, Blue Hens baseball finished at 12-22 (8-16 CAA), getting in 34 games over the course of just ten weeks. Meanwhile, the softball team played 36 games, with a final record of 25-9 (9-5 CAA).

In the double-elimination CAA softball Tournament, the Blue Hens were put on the ropes after a loss to No. 1 James Madison. However, the team came back the next day to win over Elon and Drexel, sending them to a rematch with James Madison in the conference championship. The Dukes came out victorious, though, in a 17-0 victory.

The men’s lacrosse season took a similar path, as they only incurred two regular season losses at 10-2 (7-1 CAA). With the No. 1 seed heading into the tournament, the Blue Hens matched up against No. 4 Hofstra, but unfortunately lost in a 10-9 game.

Perhaps the most disappointing season came from the women’s lacrosse team. Heading into the beginning of April, it was announced the program’s season would be canceled. According to a press release by the university, “a large indoor social gathering violated COVID-19 guidelines and the student-athlete social pledge, as well as the Newark city ordinance for indoor gatherings.”

While the women’s lacrosse players had their season end on a sour note, the vast majority of university teams were able to navigate and adhere to pandemic protocols and restrictions, while competing in a modified spring season.

As COVID-19-related protocols and mandates begin to be lifted across the country and state, it is likely that varsity athletics at the university will follow suit. The structure of the spring season of 2021 may never be duplicated again, but it has certainly become one to remember.

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