Club sports navigate pandemic protocols, heavily modified seasons


Photo courtesy of Rich Rattner

Pitt men’s club lacrosse is waiting on permission from the University to play a 14-game slate in the spring.

By Dalton Miller, Staff Writer

The phrase “spring break” often evokes images of vacations down south for a week of fun in the sun. For Pitt club baseball pitcher and digital media chair Matthew Drobner, that experience becomes a baseball player’s dream.

The Pitt club baseball team traditionally drives 18 hours down to Florida, playing games the whole week against teams from across the country. But with Pitt’s decision to eliminate spring break this year as part of pandemic-influenced calendar changes, Drobner, a senior media and professional communications major, won’t get to participate again.

“It’s one of the best parts of our club because it truly brings everyone closer together,” Drobner said. “It’s sad to think that I already had my last Florida trip.”

That spring trip represents just one of the many sacrifices Pitt club sports teams have made as they try to maneuver through a school year amid a pandemic. Each Panther squad currently faces its own confusing situation, and has chosen to handle it in different ways.

The Pitt women’s ice hockey team couldn’t compete in any games this season, but goalie and team general manager Katie Rerko said the team still has had the ability to practice at the Alpha Ice Complex, located 20 minutes northeast of Oakland, during the fall semester.

These sessions have looked much different thanks to social distancing requirements. Rerko, a junior psychology major, said every practice had to be performed without contact — a big shake-up from the physical nature of hockey — and all players had to wear masks for the entirety of practice. These practices focused primarily on individual skills, with no need to prepare for games.

Similarly, the club handball team has conducted practices focusing on shooting and passing drills, because scrimmaging would require lots of physical contact. Club handball president Pau Balcells Sanchez said although handball doesn’t feel the same with these limitations, he has appreciated the unique sessions the team has put together.

“Taking into account the circumstances, I am really happy how the practices have turned out this year,” Balcells Sanchez, a sophomore applied math and philosophy major, said. “It has helped us to focus more on the technique aspect of the sport, which we didn’t have that much time to train last year.”

Because of an increase in costs for time on the ice, the women’s ice hockey team could only schedule one practice per week instead of two. The team may not even have that luxury in the spring, as many rinks have closed down — a real disappointment to Rerko, considering these get-togethers have had more meaning than usual this season.

“We tried to have practices that were more competition-based to have fun and make up for the fact that we weren’t playing games,” Rerko said.

Some teams have struggled to maintain a roster throughout inactivity. Daniel Morton, who plays on the club basketball team, said the team hasn’t practiced this semester. Pitt has implemented restrictions for basketball reservations at Trees Hall — Morton said only one player can use each basket, for example. Morton, a senior electrical engineering major, said the team hasn’t added any new players because it couldn’t hold tryouts.

Teams that could meet together in the fall — like club field hockey, which conducted practices with masks and social distancing required — got to bring in new players. Field hockey club president Deanna Huck said the team hosted Zoom sessions to get new players acclimated with the rest of the team. Huck, a senior neuroscience and psychology major, said they mostly consisted of “introductions and chalk talk.”

Pitt men’s club lacrosse head coach Rich Rattner said his team practiced four days a week during the fall. Besides offseason workouts, including plans for both gym access and at-home situations, the Panthers have attempted to replicate competition on the field.

“We did run fall ball socially distancing, basically non-contact, which is kind of hard in the sport of lacrosse because the premise of the sport has a lot of contact involved,” Rattner said.

The women’s club lacrosse team faces a similar situation to the men’s team, having practiced in the fall with masks and social distancing required. The team practiced three times a week — twice in the sports dome without coaches and once a week at the Schenley Park soccer field with coaches, according to club president Callan Powers.

“We’re hoping to get in a few scrimmages against other teams throughout the semester but are unsure if that will happen,” Powers, a junior natural sciences major, said.

The team has its sights on the WCLA National Tournament, currently slated for the second week of May, but doesn’t know if the event will end up happening or not.

Rattner said he believes the University should consider other approaches that would maintain player and coach safety but wouldn’t involve restrictions that impede gameplay. He said camps run by U.S. Lacrosse this summer used face shields and other protocols to play the game safely, adding that the camps had no coronavirus infections.

Rattner said his team currently plans to play a full season in the spring, but first must wait on permission from the University. Rattner and his staff have already scheduled a 14-game slate that includes road trips to Temple, Buffalo and Virginia Tech, which he said most teams have done as well.

Some of the clubs’ hopes depend on Pitt’s operational posture, while others simply have had trouble finding leagues that will still operate. Drobner said the baseball team can schedule games with other schools if Pitt moves to its lowest, Guarded Risk posture, which he doesn’t foresee occurring.

With Pitt exerting extra caution this semester due to COVID-19 uncertainty, club teams can only patiently wait to find out what the spring will look like for their organizations.

While its spring season has been cancelled, Huck hopes her team can still practice in the spring, saying that she greatly preferred the practices with restrictions to no practice at all.

“The most important part for me is just being able to spend my last semester on the field hockey field with my best friends,” Huck said. “Even if that means being 6 feet away and masked up.”

With club baseball still unsure if it will face competition this season, Drobner simply awaits the imminent return of team practices.

“I don’t think there’s been a single practice where I haven’t laughed during my four years here,” Drobner said. “Sure, they may mess with my sleep schedule, but I wouldn’t trade them for anything.”