Far Afield

Athletes and coaches stay connected remotely by the power of team dynamics

For student-athletes, game day is the reward. It’s what players and teams train for – and what makes the early-morning conditioning sessions and studying for exams on late-night bus rides worth it.

But what happens when players suddenly can no longer take the field? When, in a split second, a season – and for some, a college career – is over due to the most unprecedented of circumstances?

For Montclair State University’s athletic teams, the COVID-19 pandemic brought a sudden halt to the 2020 campaign before champions could be crowned, records could be broken, and career milestones could be achieved.

What could have been the end proved to be the beginning for Montclair State’s 18 men’s and women’s teams, as Red Hawk players, coaches and administrators came together to showcase the qualities that make Division III athletics special.

“This has been an extraordinary situation for everyone, everywhere,” says Director of Intercollegiate Athletics Rob Chesney. “Our department has taken it in stride, and I’ve been really proud to see the resiliency of our players, coaches and staff, and to see everyone come together to get through this as best we can.”

Student-athletes, coaches help each other cope

Spring sports teams, the ones most impacted by the pandemic, each dealt with the end of the season in their own ways.

For the baseball team, it was a commitment to making the best of the situation – and having the proper perspective that what was taking place in the world was bigger than the game.

Blake Saperstein

“It was certainly disappointing, because we had gotten off to a really good start, and had come together as a team on our trip to Maryland during spring break,” says first-year head coach Dave Lorber. “Traveling back home, we didn’t really have the chance to hold a team meeting to let our players know what was happening moving forward because campus had been closed.”

The team instituted group calls via Zoom to stick together, but the message among the group and its coaching staff remained a constant.

“I’ve tried to instill in our players that we are a piece of a much larger puzzle,” says Lorber. “What’s going on right now is bigger than baseball. Things may not always go the way you want in life, but you can always control how you respond. Our players chose to make the best of it as best they could.”

Keeley Winn

That meant committing to finishing the semester on a strong note academically, with nearly the entire team posting a better GPA in the spring semester than in the fall.

“I’m so proud of our players – especially our seniors – for how they have responded and never wavered,” says Lorber. “It’s a testament to their resilience.”

For the softball team, honoring the program’s five seniors – pitcher Kiara Ruiz, pitcher Nicole Majewski, infielder Elena Radesich, infielder/outfielder Blake Saperstein, and pitcher Valentina Cucci – with a digital Senior Day ceremony on YouTube and Zoom, just as if they’d been on the field, kept an annual tradition unique to college sports alive.

Using family photos, action shots of the players on the field and an official presentation, the video tribute provided a virtual send-off and acknowledgement of accomplishments both on the field and in the classroom.

“I thought it was great that, even though we were graduating and not really part of the team anymore, that the department made sure we got a Senior Day,” says Saperstein. “It says a lot about the staff and our coaches that they still wanted us to have all of the same opportunities that seniors under normal circumstances would have.”

Finding the brighter side

Student-athletes even teamed up to produce video content for the department’s official website, montclairathletics.com.

Attempting to settle the age-old debate of North Jersey vs. South Jersey, two Red Hawks – senior softball player Saperstein, from Livingston, and senior women’s lacrosse player Sydnee Sapp, from Mount Laurel – went head-to-head to answer questions such as, “Is it Pork Roll or Taylor Ham?” and “Does Central Jersey exist?”

“Blake and I are good friends, and we’ve all been trying our best to stay in touch during this time,” says Sapp. “The Athletic Department has been going so far above and beyond to make all of us seniors not only still feel included, but keep us engaged and have as much fun as we can, even if it’s a fun video like this, with our friends on other teams. It’s definitely brought some light to all of us, and we are all so appreciative of all they’ve done.”

Teams also took to social media to engage in activities that highlighted their bonds.

Montclair State’s field hockey team also found a way to stay active and raise the awareness of social distancing with the viral “Toilet Paper Challenge.” In their Instagram video, teammates show off their skills virtually passing a roll of toilet paper from player to player. Creative editing combines their video clips to make the play seamless.

“We’ve been trying to do little things just to keep everyone motivated and doing stuff to get our sticks in our hands, even if it is with toilet paper,” says Keeley Winn, a senior majoring in Family Science and Human Development.

“It was so funny to see what my teammates could come up with – running backwards on a treadmill, adding pet goats to the scene” Winn recalls. “And it was nice to ‘be together’ without being together, if that makes sense.”

The players on the field hockey team also sent baby pictures to their coach to post on the team’s Instagram story. “It is important to keep the dynamic of the team strong during these times and keep the spirits high,” Winn says.

Division III Week, Senior Spotlights go virtual

Each year, NCAA Division III institutions celebrate Division III Week, in which student-athletes are honored for their achievements both on and off the field.

Typically highlighted by an event to commemorate National Student-Athlete Day, the department’s Student Development team ensured players would still receive awards including honors for the 3.0 GPA Club, Dean’s List, Scholar-Athlete Team and induction in the National College Athlete Honor Society.

Image grid of senior spotlights

Arranging for a series of events over the course of Division III Week, the daily virtual broadcasts were highlighted via Instagram each day of the week and corresponding stories on the department’s website, with more than 250 student-athletes receiving honors as part of the initiative.

“As a parent of a senior, I am devastated for these students,” says Tara Rienecker, assistant athletic director of student development for athletes. “Everything they know is different. The experience they thought they would have, never happened. Although doing a virtual event is in no way the same, we wanted the students to know they are important, not forgotten and will overcome and thrive. We use the phrase in Athletics #RedHawk4Life, and they will forever be remembered and part of our Red Hawk family.”

Coaches and administrators also found a way to continue the long-standing tradition of honoring student-athletes whose careers were concluding.

Field hockey sophomore midfielder Katelyn Osterlind joined teammates for the "Toilet Paper Challenge," a social media initiative to promote social distancing during the pandemic.

They showcased each graduating spring athlete in stories at montclairathletics.com titled “Senior Spotlights,” which included career highlights, personal question-and-answer sections and testimonials about why each player decided to attend the University.

“I chose Montclair State because I did not want to go far away for college and it was the perfect distance from home, 1.5 hours,” said women’s track and field student-athlete Samantha Miller. “My neighbor also graduated from Montclair State and recommended I check it out, and once I knew I could run here, I was all in.”

At some point, the Red Hawks will once again take the field and compete for New Jersey Athletic Conference championships and berths in the NCAA Tournament. But the student-athletes who experienced the spring of 2020 will take away lessons that will last a lifetime and bonds, forged in adversity, that will be stronger than ever.

“Our teams are preparing for their upcoming seasons as best we can right now,” says Chesney, “but I fully expect everyone to not only be ready when games are allowed, but for our teams and department to be stronger than ever because of these experiences.”

Staff Writer Marilyn Lehren contributed to this story.

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