Athletes & The Pandemic
For Lander athletes, COVID-19 brought unexpected ‘losses and wins’.
GREENWOOD -- Cancelled. It’s a word expected on flight boards at airports – not a word associated with college sports and tournaments.
Across the nation, COVID-19 put an end to March Madness for men’s and women’s basketball and to all spring sports. The mid-March announcement sent shock waves across the country because only a day earlier the NCAA had announced that basketball championship games would go on, though mostly in empty arenas.
In a statement, the NCAA voiced what many Americans already feared. “This decision is based on the evolving COVID-19 public health threat, our ability to ensure the events do not contribute to the spread of the pandemic and the impracticality of hosting such events at any time during the academic year given the ongoing decisions by other entities.”
Only a few days earlier, Lander had hosted the Peach Belt Conference games for men’s and women’s basketball. The Lander Bearcats’ men’s and women’s teams were victorious in the finals and were headed to the first round of the NCAA Division II Tournament.
But the days of celebration and anticipation ended quickly. Spring sports would become a page in the history books for Lander’s basketball, baseball, softball, tennis and golf teams. Esports, along with club and intramural sports, were finished, too.
Elijah Alston, a biology major with a minor in chemistry, saw his winning basketball career end because of a microscopic virus whose deadly impact was baffling doctors and researchers around the world. For Alston, of Brunswick, Ga., it was a feeling of great loss.
“As a student athlete, I missed out on the opportunity to play in the NCAA tournament. This was the first time in my college career that I made it to the NCAA tournament with any team. That itself is a major loss and so is not interacting with my friends and professors,” he said.
Disappointing, too, was the realization that the Lander commencement ceremony scheduled for May 13 was being postponed. “This impacts me a great deal because I will have been the first child of my parents to graduate and walk across the stage, and the first member of my immediate family to do so with two degrees,” said Alston.
Jessica Harris, a member of the victorious women’s basketball team, lamented the loss of ending the season with her teammates, playing in the NCAA tournament and having “an opportunity to make it to the elite 8.”
Weeks beyond the NCAA announcement, “It's still surreal. I will always remember where I was when I heard the news,” said Harris, whose basketball honors were many -- PBC Champion Player of the Year, Lander Women’s Athlete of the Year, an All-American nominee, First Team All-Conference member and First Team D2CCA All-Southeast Region selection.
“The freshmen never got a chance to experience a real NCAA game, and that is something I will always wish I could change for them,” said Harris, a mass communications major from Sumter.
Axel Cronje, of Copenhagen, Denmark, a member of Lander’s tennis team, said the first challenge was “finding the motivation to do anything,” a reaction shared by many Americans in the early days and weeks of the pandemic. But it didn’t take long for Cronje to get up and moving.
“I have tried to keep myself active, by either working out at home or going outside and doing something physical, either going for a run or a walk.”
The loss of spring sports was difficult. “I missed out on a lot of competition and tournaments. We completed maybe half of the regular season, only having lost one match. We were doing very well as a team. We did not get to compete at the end-of-the-season conference tournament,” he said, adding that the team missed out on the chance to qualify for national competition in tennis.
“I lost my senior softball season,” said exercise science major Sydney Grimes, of Hoschton, Ga. “Lander was given the opportunity to host the PBC conference tournament this year for softball, and this was something I was extremely excited about. Unfortunately, because of the virus, we did not have the chance to go to the tournament.”
Other losses from the pandemic were “in-class learning, a normal graduation ceremony, the chance to make history with this team, and the memories that were cut short both in the classroom and on the field,” said Grimes, who earned magna cum laude academic accolades. “This has been such a heartbreaking time for seniors, and I would never wish this feeling upon anyone.” But in true sportsmanship-like fashion, the athletes see the “wins” of the semester. Cronje, for example, will be able to continue tennis for another season. “The NCAA has granted us an extra year of eligibility, which I intend to use.”
He has numerous accomplishments on the tennis court and in the classroom, including Dean’s List honors, PBC Team of Academic Distinction, PBC First Team in 2019, two-time All American in tennis doubles for which only 10 pairs of NCAA Division II teams can achieve.
“In doubles, I was ranked as high as No. 2 in the country, and for singles, I was ranked as high as the Top 40 in the nation,” said Cronje, who is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in financial services and plans to pursue an MBC after completing his education at Lander.
“We finished my senior year as region and PBC champions,” said Harris, who hopes that she can one day pursue her dream of playing basketball in Europe – a goal that already was on its way to being fulfilled when COVID-19 shook the world.
A win from the pandemic for Alston “is that it allotted a vast amount of time for me to focus on my studies.” He plans to take “a gap year” and work to save money for his future enrollment in medical school. “The pandemic has affected this plan, due to the fact that the MCAT testing has been postponed. This is a big part in the medical school application, but the Association of American Medical Colleges is actively working to find a solution.”
“The win from this pandemic was the chance to spend time at home with my family before I move to Savannah for the next three years,” said Grimes, who is looking forward to the Doctor of Physical Therapy Program at Georgia Southern University. “Another win was allowing myself to put things into perspective.”
Her classes at GSU will be online through the summer. “The program has worked hard to make online classes successful for the program, and I know that my class will be able to work through this,” said Grimes who was on the President’s List for academic achievement at Lander and a member of the PBC Team of Academic Distinction in 2019 and 2020.
The athletes found that lessons learned from the pandemic have been many and unexpected.
Cronje said the immediate loss of tennis practice was hard. “When you are used to being active every single day with tennis and that stops completely, it has a weird effect on your body. You feel restless the majority of the time. I hope that in the future, when the confinement is over, that I become more productive with my work and find more things that can keep me occupied during days without tennis.”
While the past few weeks brought challenges, Grimes said, “It has also given me so much time to reflect. It made me realize that we should enjoy every second, do what makes you happy while you can, and to keep moving forward. I chose not to let this pandemic affect my future, and I took my own advice to keep moving forward.”
Alston said the “pandemic has taught me is to be grateful for having the option to go and do whatever you want, whenever you want to.” And the time at home “is turning me into a pretty decent cook,” he said, noting that lemon chicken piccata is a favorite dish.
Harris, too, yearns for the day when she can move freely again, but she will carry an important lesson wherever she goes. “I have learned there are still good people out in this world, but that it is more important to be a good person out in the world.”
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