Club sports were canceled abruptly amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Here’s how they could make a comeback.

Tori Merchantz, member of the Northeastern University Women’s Rugby Club, at Carter Field. Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

Last October, it felt like the stars were aligning for the Northeastern women’s club rugby team—they had just narrowly defeated the University of Connecticut, a rival they play every year, for the first time in a decade. 

Tori Merchantz says she still remembers the burst of emotions that overcame her team after the final whistle sounded.

“After the game ended, we all ran to the middle of the field screaming and crying,” says Merchantz, a third-year student of behavioral neuroscience. “We were so excited that we won. It wasn’t just our class that was freaking out—the seniors who had graduated the year before, they all came to watch us play, and they celebrated with us.”

Tori Merchantz is a third-year student of behavioral neuroscience, and a member of the women’s club rugby team at Northeastern.. Photos by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

The win was supposed to build momentum for the spring, when more rugby tournaments are played. But all of that was derailed in early March as cases of the novel coronavirus began multiplying across the United States. Club sports programs nationwide were put on pause, and tournaments were canceled. 

“It was like one week, we were raring to go and ready to involve ourselves, and the next week, everything was canceled,” Merchantz says. “Morale was pretty low. We were split between trying to encourage people but at the same time making sure people were safe, and that we were taking the adequate precautions.”

These feelings—frustration, disappointment, and uncertainty for what’s ahead—were not only felt by Merchantz and her team, but no doubt felt by most of the more than 2,400 students who participate in club sports at Northeastern, comprising one of the largest programs in the country. 

Rachel Tassinari, a player on the women’s club ice hockey team, had been counting down the days before she and her team would depart for Texas for a second run in the national tournament. Her team had just beaten Boston University in their final regular season game, and had already begun planning for the postseason when the pandemic canceled the tournament.

“Everything happened so fast,” says Tassinari, who’s studying criminal justice, psychology, and security. “We were so dead set on competing, we’d even mapped out who we would face, how we were going to beat them, all this stuff. There was never any completion to the season. We needed closure.”

But now, student life has safely returned to the Boston campus, igniting the hopes of an eventual return to club sports. Nick Avery, the associate director of club sports, says he and his team are in the midst of launching the first phase of the restart, which provides distanced fitness classes to all 64 club sports teams and outlines in-person practice guidelines for “low-risk sports,” such as golf and equestrian. 

“We’ve expressed from the start that things can continue to progress forward as well as take a step back,” Avery says. “On our end, we have things in place so that we’re able to pull our permits, pull our classes, and prohibit any teams from moving forward. Any team that goes against that would face disciplinary measures.”

Avery describes club sports as Northeastern’s “hidden gem”—a bustling community of students who have built a culture that, he says, holistically brings the Northeastern experience together. 

“It’s an outlet for student engagement and leadership,” Avery says. “Students are able to find themselves, their best friends, and a group of people that have common interests.”

Avery says his team is also working on augmenting virtual workouts and meetings, which are how all 64 teams are allowed to gather. Until now, these meetings have been less focused on the sports themselves, and more on checking in on the well-being of players. For many of the athletes, their respective club sport is their best way to relieve stress, and without it, many students, just like the general populace, are experiencing increased feelings of fear, grief, and anxiety.

Tassinari says it’s been difficult to cultivate a team atmosphere in this new virtual setting, but through group chats and online meetings, they’ve been able to recreate some semblance of connectivity. 

Most teams are also facing challenges in recruiting new members. Fall Fest, which is usually a vibrant event for incoming and returning students to browse through all of the university’s clubs and activities, was fully virtual this year, and most teams have fallen short of their usual recruiting goals. 

Merchantz says a virtual presentation for club sports, no matter the sport, just isn’t the same. The women’s rugby team has only seen one new recruit thus far, and she worries that this could impact the future of their club. Likewise, the women’s ice hockey team has also seen a dip in recruitment. 

Avery acknowledges that there are challenges ahead, and that the road to getting all the teams back up and running in a safe manner won’t be easy. But he says he’s confident that each team will forge ahead, and abide by the measures that the university puts in place. 

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