Flyers senior female student-athletes grateful for final season even through the COVID-19 pandemic

The women’s soccer senior class represents the largest group of seniors on a team at UD, but are only a few of the many who have dealt with the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo courtesy of Christian Cubacub, Flyer News.

Alayna Yates

Contributing Writer

For volleyball senior Bridget Doherty, putting on a Dayton Flyers jersey was a simple joy that she never gave too much thought. Until COVID-19 hit.

“The things that you thought were automatic are not anymore, and you have to rewire your brain to be thankful for the opportunities that you’re given even though it might not be what you’re expecting,” Doherty said.

COVID-19 has been devastating for many people, and for college seniors, the virus has completely altered their expectations of what their final year should look like. With changing schedules, cancelled seasons and weekly COVID tests, senior athletes went into their final season wondering how much of it they’d actually get to play. When Ivy League schools cancelled fall sports in July 2020, athletes began to doubt the assurance of their seasons.

For Briley Sidor, a senior mechanical engineering major on the softball team, it was old news since her junior spring season in 2020 had already been cut short.

“When COVID hit and I lost my season I felt like I had lost my identity,” Sidor said. “Every March since I was old enough to play school sports, I was in season, March through May, and that was gone. I felt like I had no purpose.”

Sharing that sentiment, Sidor’s teammate, senior psychology major Olivia Lessman, said she also went through periods when she had to re-identify herself without the label of her sport.

“Going through that time I was like, ‘What am I good at and what do I like?’” Lessman said. “Obviously softball is something I do and something I love, but it’s not who I am. I am much more than my sport.”

In her own shift of identity, senior women’s basketball player, Erin Whalen, said that putting on a “brave” face for the underclassmen in times of uncertainty was one of the hardest parts of her final season during the pandemic.

Whalen (#21, with ball) led the Flyers women’s basketball team in scoring (13.6 points per game) in 2020-21, but also functioned as a leader through the trials of COVID-19. Photo courtesy of Christian Cubacub, Flyer News. 

When we went through our span of shutdowns and cancelled games it was really frustrating, but having the team constantly look at you put an extra pressure of being this ‘perfect example,’” Whalen said. “Even when I wanted to show my disappointment or frustration I kind of had to mask my feelings and initial reactions so that my teammates could trust me to get them through this.”

As seniors, these female athletes play a major leadership role on their respective teams. Through the pandemic and all the safety protocols, these seniors had to enforce rules on their teams. With the pressure to be a leader and safety police on top of the sheer stress of day-to-day-life in the COVID era, Doherty said she’s relied on her teammates when she’s feeling flustered by it all. 

“I kind of have to stay with my teammates for that grounding because I don’t think it comes off well to people who aren’t in it with you,” Doherty said. “For my parents, friends from school, or even my boyfriend, they don’t understand the gravity of the situation and the gravity of the rules we’re following.”

Most teams trying to follow complete lockdown rules to ensure they get to play the maximum number of games possible have been limited in who they see outside of teammates. Some are even being cautious about team gatherings, as well.

“Those fall semester memories that we normally get to have just did not happen this year and it truly breaks my heart for transfers and for freshmen,” Sidor said. “From my past few years, the memories hanging with my team are what I remember most, so not getting as many this year has been hard.”

Although not getting to spend as much time with teammates has been difficult for all athletes, senior women’s soccer player Kara Camarco said being disciplined from a social standpoint is what it takes to be able to get the most out of her final season. 

“I want to set up the team,” Camarco said. “If I put myself in a bad situation, I’m also screwing over my roommates and whoever’s been in contact with us.” 

And with a season that’s already been pushed from fall to spring, Camarco understands the gravity of each opportunity she gets on the field.

“Every game matters,” Camarco said. “We might not get the next game so we have to really come out and win this game because every point matters more than it ever has and that’s been a big part of our training.”

A big part of training for the women’s basketball team was overcoming feelings of defeat by things they couldn’t control. With her team getting shut down twice for 14-day periods due to COVID cases and exposure, senior Jenna Giacone said her team had to get creative and not let the less-than-ideal situation affect them.

“The team had to find ways to stay connected, stay in shape, and continue to grow and build with each other while not physically being together,” Giacone said. “It was a challenge, and new territory to all, but our coaches and leadership stayed strong and worked with what we were given. Everyone in the country was struggling with the same thing, and we knew that. There was never a time that we could feel sorry for ourselves.”

Despite the aggravations and occasional moments of self-pity, the athletes said they gained a stronger sense of gratitude for the opportunity to play.

“I’ll be satisfied if we play five games, I’ll be satisfied if we play 50 games,” Lessman said.

Playing like each match could be their last has been a common theme for these Flyer athletes. Grateful for every bit of their senior seasons, these women haven’t been too picky.

“We never know when the last time we will get to play our sport is,” Sidor said. “It is a good reminder to leave it all on the field every single time you play because you do not want to walk away with any regrets.”

Doherty said the chance to put on the jersey one last time has helped her block out the world and its negativity.

Even through the trials of a difficult season, Doherty (center, arms raised) was able to celebrate a lot as the Flyers volleyball team made the Second Round of the NCAA Tournament. Photo courtesy of UD Athletics.

“There’s a lot of noise in the outside world and you can get really easily frustrated in that and all of the rules that we’re supposed to be following,” Doherty said. “Once you’re in the moment, you’re on the court, you’re in the middle of a match, you’re not thinking about any of those things. And that’s something that’s really valuable to me. Volleyball is a distraction from the chaos of everything else.”

Although grateful for the sport and the distraction, senior soccer player Emma Thomas said this spring was supposed to be a transitional period for her and other fall sport athletes to learn to live outside of the grueling student-athlete schedule they’ve become accustomed to. 

“It’s not that we missed out on a spring without soccer, it’s kind of like I consider it more like we missed out on adjusting to the real world without soccer in our lives because it’s been in my life for so long,” Thomas said. 

Thomas’ teammate, senior Morgan Henderson, also said it will be hard to adjust to a life without the sport.

“Normally in this semester, you’re transitioning into being not a student-athlete. You’re getting into your job and finding your own thing besides being defined by soccer,” Henderson said. “You graduate, go to your job and it’s like ‘Wait, do I not have soccer practice today?’”

With limited opportunities for female athletes to continue their sports after college, many seniors know that the final season calls for their last time putting on the jersey. Giacone, who plans to play overseas, knows that there’s a noticeable gap between men’s and women’s professional basketball in the US.

Giacone (#12, with basketball) had a break-out season for the Flyers in 2020-21. Photo courtesy of Christian Cubacub, Flyer News.

“It isn’t a secret the salaries that an NBA player makes,” Giacone said. “The star WNBA players make a fraction of that. Most WNBA players have to play overseas as well in the off season in order to make enough money. It is unfortunate.”

Following the recent coverage of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament conditions in comparison to the men’s tournament, Henderson said the difference in weight room equipment and food was just a glimpse into the much bigger issue of gender inequality.

“It’s a shame that it had to happen, but I’m really happy it’s an eye-opener for everybody,” Henderson said. “On the surface level, ground level, deep level that was a blatant example and there’s no argument there. That was gender inequality right there.”

For women’s volleyball and softball, professional opportunities are increasing in the U.S., but much like women’s soccer and basketball, the most professional opportunities to continue these sports lie overseas.

Since female athletes have fewer chances to continue playing sports at the professional level, senior year is incredibly special for these women who are getting ready to hang up their jerseys. 

“Getting the opportunity to step on the court again with my best friends was something that I didn’t know if it would happen again,” Doherty said. “It’s completely altered my perspective and my sense of gratitude.”

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