UMass athletes look to persevere through ever-changing college sports landscape

  • Jenny Hipp, left, of UMass, battles Eastern Michigan’s Mikayla Cupp in 2018. The Minutewomen’s season has been delayed until the spring due to the coronavirus pandemic. J. Anthony Roberts

For the Gazette
Published: 8/10/2020 4:41:59 PM

UMass women’s soccer player Jenny Hipp has been watching the developments of fall sports at the university unfold from her home in Frankfurt, Germany, this summer.

The senior midfielder is waiting to return to Massachusetts. She was scheduled to fly back this fall, but UMass Chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy’s recent campus housing changes canceled her plans. Hipp is now planning on returning in January.

The spread of the coronavirus is threatening the return to school and athletics across the country this fall, picking up where it left off during the spring. College athletes are left to wonder if they will be playing sports at all this year.

The Atlantic 10 conference, in which many UMass is a member, announced the postponement of its fall schedule on July 17. The affected sports for UMass include men’s and women’s soccer, field hockey, and men’s and women’s cross country. Though saddened by the announcement, Hipp thinks the decision to postpone the season was a prudent one by the conference.

“I think that was a really smart decision by the A10, referring to eligibility and people’s health and just in general making a statement that, yes, sports are important but the health of people is more important,” Hipp said in late July.

The A10 leaders decided to implement a 60-day “look-in window” to gauge the severity of the coronavirus pandemic and decide whether to keep fall sports postponed until the spring as planned or play a conference-only schedule this fall. Although it is an optimistic approach to the season, Hipp doesn’t buy that a swift redirect back to the fall is plausible.

“It was nice of them to say that, but I personally don’t think that will happen and I don’t want to get my hopes up,” she said. “In the end, if that happens, I will be happy because I just want to play soccer. But I think they should only do that if they are really, really sure about it.”

Hipp is particularly concerned about whether players would be able to keep an extra year of eligibility if the season is canceled mid-way through. She said she would rather wait to play a full season over the spring than risk losing her final year of eligibility after only a few games.

Hipp has high ambitions for the next season, not just as a senior but as a member of a team that has seen tangible growth the past few years. After a coaching change following her freshman season, the team improved to 11-6-1 and reached the Atlantic 10 Tournament quarterfinals in 2018. The Minutewomen then fell in the tournament semifinals in 2019.

Hipp wants to continue that momentum and reach bigger goals on the pitch. She also doesn’t want to miss out on the relationships she has been able to build during her time at UMass.

“I already thought of my senior year as a really emotional season just because I came from a different country, I couldn’t even speak English when I came to the U.S., and I didn’t know anyone,” Hipp said. “And I just grew into an environment surrounded by so many welcoming and nice people that it’s kind of my second family now.”

Apart from the Atlantic 10, UMass is watching the landscape unfold around college football. The Minutemen currently have eight of their 12 games still scheduled: Troy (Sept. 12), Appalachian State (Sept. 26), New Mexico (Oct. 3), Temple (Oct. 10), FIU (Oct. 24), New Mexico State (Nov. 7), Army (Nov. 21) and Liberty (Nov. 28).

UMass lost UConn (Sept. 3), Albany (Sept. 19), Akron (Oct. 17) and Auburn (Nov. 14).

UConn, Albany and Akron are not playing football this fall. On July 30, the Southeastern Conference announced it would play only conference games this season. The Minutemen were set to receive $1.9 million from Auburn, but the loss of that game leaves the payout in question.

Amid the continuing uncertainty, the team is still approaching preseason camp as if a football season will take place. Senior linebacker Chinedu Ogbonna, who has been a starter since his sophomore year, is optimistic that things will go according to plan and a football season will take place in some form. He wears a mask outdoors, practices social distancing where he can and gets tested for the coronavirus on a weekly basis. With guidelines in place, only one UMass football player has tested positive for COVID-19 so far.

Nevertheless, the impact of canceling big games like Auburn is significant. For players like Ogbonna, those types of games are a good measuring stick for where they stand among the top competition in the nation.

“My sophomore year we played Georgia and our coach said, ‘If you want to play in the NFL, this is pretty much the NFL,’” Ogbonna recalled late last month. “And if anybody on our team wants to play at the next level, you’re playing a whole team with guys (the majority of whom) will go to the next level.”

Ogbonna wants to play at the next level, and playing a football season in the fall is critical for those career plans. He has some concerns about the effects that moving the season to the spring would have on the process of preparing for the next level.

“If the football season is moved to spring, that’s gonna mess up a lot of people’s drafts,” he said. “You don’t have time to heal enough, and then you gotta go straight to training right after football.”

The current situation is not ideal, but Ogbonna is hopeful that he will be able to participate in a college football season worthy of his senior year.

“You never know when the game is going to end for you,” Ogbonna said, reiterating a saying his coaches have repeated many times over the years.

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