During the pandemic, sports teams find new ways to connect.

For volleyball middle hitter Khushali Joshi ’21, safety precautions during contact volleyball practices have become almost as routine as blocking. She walks into practice wearing a mask, signs in, stays six feet apart, plays volleyball, and only takes off her mask during breaks. While players would usually host pasta dinners at each other’s houses or stop by Portillo’s after practice, COVID-19 has uprooted the ways Joshi and her teammates connect.

“The only bonding that’s happening right now is just going to practice and then practicing together,” Joshi said.

Like many student athletes, Joshi would have never imagined having a delayed senior season and only occasional practices. For fall sports like girls’ volleyball and football, the season is pushed back until February, but unofficial practices are still occurring. In Illinois, the only high school fall sports allowed to play currently are golf, cross country, girls’ tennis, and girls’ swimming and diving. 

Claudia Rzeznik ’22 is a member of the girls’ varsity swim team. For her, swimming has been an integral part of her high school career. While the pandemic may have disrupted the season, Rzenznik and her team have been trying to recreate as much of a normal swim season as possible. 

“We’re able to social distance in the water, so one person would be at the wall and another at the flags,” Rzeznik said. “We wear masks for all dryland practices, and we’re just really trying to preserve the season.” 

While the team has been able to compete in meet formats mostly unchanged from previous seasons, the pandemic has taken much of the team experience away. It used to be a norm for Rzeznik’s team to get together for outings such as  senior night and team dinners. Now, all bonding has been reduced to the waters and virtual meetings. 

“We had one really fun picnic. We walked over to a park and just spent some time as a team, all wearing masks and socially distancing from each other,” Rzeznik said. “Right now, though, we’re very committed to staying healthy so we aren’t risking our season. Our coach always reminds us to wear our masks and to be safe.” 

While team bonding may not be up to the par of previous years, the team still enjoys their time together. According to Rzeznik, with sectionals around the corner and the season coming to a close, the sport has brought about friendship that perseveres through a pandemic. Despite the lack of organized bonding sessions, the team still cares about each other and connects virtually on their own time. 

Similar to the swim team, the football team currently has contact practices. Following the school closure announcement this past spring, gym teacher and Patriots defensive coordinator Brian Burja worked with his fellow coaches to hold Zoom meetings three times a week. Now, the team comes together for two contact practices each week.

During contact days, players can throw the ball and run passing segments, but out of safety concerns, don’t have close contact with one another. Due to the delayed season, scrimmages like the team’s Patriot Games — where students are divided into different groups and have to complete various challenges during the season — have been delayed.

Illinois was the only state in the Midwest to not allow high school football, a decision that prompted anger from many players’ families. But many states, including Illinois, have experienced recent increases in COVID-19 cases in recent weeks, putting the return of sports further in jeopardy. For now, coaches and players can only wait.

“I hope all sports; winter, fall and spring, all get to have their seasons this year,” Burja said. “COVID-19 is serious but kids being able to do what they love for only four years of their life and potentially missing out on that is serious too. Sports was an outlet for me when I was in high school and I admire the way student athletes in Illinois and especially Stevenson have coped and handled the uncontrollable situation we are currently in.”