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Monday, June 14, 2021

Masks at practice, parking lot lunches, locker room shifts: Inside college lacrosse’s return amid COVID-19 pandemic

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Edward Lee, The Baltimore Sun, (TNS)

BALTIMORE — When the coronavirus pandemic cut short the 2020 college lacrosse season on March 12, the Loyola Maryland women’s team had sprinted to a 5-0 start, defeated three consecutive ranked opponents and skyrocketed from No. 11 to No. 3 in the Inside Lacrosse media poll.

So it’s almost understandable that Livy Rosenzweig needed some time to accept the reality that had clouded those accomplishments. In fact, the now-senior attacker said that it took her 43 days to bury that season in the past.

“I think that it was really hard to move on from such a great season that we were having,” said Rosenzweig, who made the decision on what would have been the Greyhounds’ regular-season finale at Navy on April 23. “But we knew that we had to move on, and once we got to what our last game of the season would have been, we kind of said, ‘OK, this is when the season would have ended. So let’s end it here. Let’s only talk about this year going forward and what we can do to be better for the following season.’ It was really hard to move on from the amazing season that we were having, but the coaches made it known that we needed to move on and just focus on the next opportunity that we get to play.”

The turn of the calendar from 2020 to 2021 and the transition from winter to spring have enhanced an eagerness for lacrosse programs locally and nationally. Some such as the Towson men, who absorbed a season-opening 20-11 setback at No. 6 Virginia on Saturday, have already taken that first step, and many others are champing at the bit for their chance to open their seasons.

“We are hungry to get out and play,” said Navy coach Cindy Timchal, whose Midshipmen will welcome George Mason to Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis on Saturday at 11 a.m. “We’re very passionate about lacrosse in Division I as well as here at the Naval Academy and in the state of Maryland. So we’re going to press through very carefully, but resiliently.”

Yet like that irritating houseguest who has overstayed his welcome, the coronavirus continues to cast a shadow over the country, and the pandemic’s tentacles continue to stretch outwards.

Locally, the season opener between the Maryland and Johns Hopkins women scheduled for Sunday at Homewood Field in Baltimore was postponed Monday because of positive tests for COVID-19 within the Blue Jays program. Nationally, the Massachusetts men were forced to pull out of their first game on Saturday against Army West Point because of a surge of positive cases on their campus in Amherst.

Another effect is a paring of teams’ schedules. In a typical year, men’s programs would play about 14 to 15 games in the regular season, while women’s programs would schedule about 17 to 18 games.

This spring, to limit potential exposure to the coronavirus, schools have cut back on midweek games and restricted scheduling games against non-conference opponents, forcing men’s and women’s teams to drop an average of three to four games. The Big Ten, which includes Johns Hopkins and Maryland, has taken the additional step of confining its members to conference-only games.

“Will I miss for a year having some of these games that I’ve played since 1995? Yes,” said Maryland coach Cathy Reese, whose No. 8 Terps will now begin at Big Ten rival Penn State on Feb. 21. “But we’ll get these games back on the schedule and we’ll get back to a more regular season, I would think, by next year. I sure hope so.”

Many of the area programs are employing measures such as avoiding overnight stays at hotels on road trips, taking two buses instead of one to promote physical distancing, and banning post-game meals with family members and friends. But that’s just scratching the surface.

At Towson, players on offense are given 15 minutes to use the locker room next to Johnny Unitas Stadium before they are ushered out so that their teammates on defense can use the same space for the same allotted time. Road trips now include boxed lunches consumed outside in parking lots at shopping centers.

Loyola has yet to use its locker room at Ridley Athletic Complex. Weights and other exercise machines have been moved to an indoor dome on an adjoining field, which is also where a projector has been installed for players and coaches to pore over film.

At Maryland and Navy, players use their locker rooms in shifts, capacity in the weight rooms is capped at 25% or lower, and players are required to wears masks while participating in drills during practice.

“We’re not a fan of it, but if it keeps everybody safe, then we’ll wear them,” Midshipmen senior attacker Nicole Victory said of the face coverings.

But there are drawbacks. Loyola men’s coach Charley Toomey said the players have missed out on the interaction in the locker room that is critical toward building relationships. Timchal, the Navy coach, said she worries that a general sense of complacency might overtake players and coaches nationwide as temperatures get warmer and vaccinations become more prevalent.

Towson men’s coach Shawn Nadelen is concerned for the players’ psychological states.

“We’re not really allowing them to be the full-fledged college students that the juniors and seniors had known before and that the freshmen probably expected to be coming in,” he said. “That’s challenging, and it’s difficult. But I think the guys got a taste of that in the fall and now realize, ‘Hey, man, we love being a Towson lacrosse player, and this thing could be pulled out from underneath us at any moment if we don’t pay attention to what we have to do.’ So that continues to be a huge challenge.”

If history is a gauge, there will be pauses. Several college football programs, including Maryland, could not complete their seasons last fall, and UMBC, Duke, Virginia and Vermont discontinued their women’s basketball teams’ seasons this winter. The Ivy League is still mulling whether to allow spring sports, and there have been reports of players on the Yale and Cornell men’s teams withdrawing to preserve their year of eligibility.

“There’s going to be challenges, and there’s going to hiccups,” Maryland’s Reese said. “I think it’s [unwise] to think that we’re all going to have perfect seasons, and that we’re going to get out and that every game is going to go on as scheduled and every official is going to be healthy to go. So I think there’s a lot of challenges with it. But I do think that our Big Ten coaches and the administrators and the University of Maryland medical committee and medical team are doing everything possible to make sure that we’re being as protective as we can of everybody.”

If there is reason to be optimistic, time has allowed the medical community to gain a greater understanding of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced in December that quarantine guidelines suggesting 14 days of isolation could be reduced to 10 days. And Dr. Scott Jerome, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and the director of sports cardiology, said more recent studies have shown that the percentage of college athletes diagnosed with myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle, caused by the coronavirus has hovered around 3% compared to earlier projections of 15%.

“I think we’ve got a better handle on this and athletes and COVID,” said Jerome, who is also a sports cardiologist for the athletic department at Maryland and UMBC. “So I think we’re all breathing a little easier with the approach to athletes. Now that we’ve learned and we’re not going crazy, now we know what to do.”

Dr. Zachary Orion Binney, an epidemiologist at Oxford College of Emory University, said if players and coaches are actively practicing measures such as mask-wearing and physical distancing, he is optimistic that lacrosse teams will be able to avoid last year’s cancellation.

“I think it will be easier to pull off a lacrosse season under reasonable safety standards than with a basketball season,” Binney said. “If you can practice outdoors and play outdoors, I support trying to make that happen. If you get an outbreak within your program — whether that’s from a lacrosse-related activity or an off-the-field activity like players simply living together — then you will need to pause the season for a couple of weeks. But I am hopeful that we will not see too many outbreaks that are directly related to lacrosse activity as long as you are careful about not spending too much time indoors together.”

But if NBA players broke protocol in that league’s bubble in Florida last summer and fall in several much-publicized incidents, can college athletes be expected to resist similar temptations? Ryan McNulty, a redshirt senior long-stick midfielder at Loyola, said he and his teammates have drawn a line in the sand.

“We’ve said that if you want to have that experience right now but want to go out and party, then Loyola lacrosse is not for you,” he said. “It’s a hard thing to say, but it’s just the sacrifice we have to make. It’s more worth it to be on the field playing with the guys than out somewhere partying.”

Rosenzweig, the Loyola attacker, could finish this season as the program’s all-time leader in points and assists as long as COVID-19 doesn’t derail that objective. She acknowledged that the notion of the coronavirus prematurely ending another year is chilling.

“I think that is always in the back of our minds, and when you’re trying to make a decision on something that might be risky, thinking about that feeling that we had last year can come into play,” she said. “But I think the whole team is on-board. There are some things that we can’t control, and we’ll just have to roll with the punches. But we’re doing everything in our ability to stay on the field.”

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