By Jed Edgar | Contributing Writer
September 17, 2020
The Wheaton women’s tennis team was competing in a tournament in Altamonte Springs, Fla. when the unfortunate news broke. It was March 12, the fourth day of spring break. As Nicole Freeman and Claire Dibble walked off the court from their doubles match versus Millsaps College, they heard Head Coach Jane Nelson exclaim, “Well, Wheaton’s cancelled.” The team had gone an impressive 7-1 in conference play, but thanks to COVID-19, their season had unexpectedly come to an abrupt end.
It was a letdown, to be sure, but the experience also proved to be instructive. Just a few months later, on July 24, the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin would vote to postpone the fall season as well.
“We were all super bummed out about it,” said sophomore Abygale Ahn, “but based on the precautions most colleges were taking we kind of saw it coming.”
Nelson described the cancellation as a “gradual process,” as other conferences within Division III started cancelling their seasons throughout the summer. Although the loss of the 2020 season seemed inevitable to some, it left many unanswered questions.
“The general uncertainty regarding what the fall semester would look like was overwhelming itself,” said sophomore Lily Van Ye. “When the possibility of not playing my favorite sport with the team I love everyday became a possibility, I felt disappointed and frustrated. While heading home prematurely in the spring we talked about how ‘at least we will be back in the fall,’ and I became worried those hopes would not come to fruition.”
Although members of the team are unable to compete this fall, the NCAA has granted athletes an additional year of eligibility if they choose to return to play for the Thunder in the future.
Eventually, the Thunder were permitted to practice under heavy protocol and safety precautions such as masked practices, safe social distancing and adherence to Wheaton’s COVID-19 policies.
“It has been such a blessing to be back with the team and to still be able to work towards our goal,” said senior Captain Emme Lindquist. “We are able to still play the sport we love, being out there means so much.”
Tennis is a non-contact sport, which according to the CDC guidelines means that the risk of transmitting the virus amongst the team is much lower than a contact to low contact sports.
“Our first practice was just fun,” said Nelson. “Everyone was so happy to be together and to be on the court playing tennis, it was just smiles.” She set out to create a three-day-a-week practice schedule that combined enjoyment and preparation. “We’ll work on some doubles, partners and other things we’d normally be doing in the fall. You can always improve.”
The team is coming off their 22nd CCIW championship from the previous fall season, with returning stars like junior Bethany Hoogerheide and Ahn, both undefeated in match play, and senior captains Dibble and Lindquist, 14-3 and 13-4, respectively.
The possibility of an upcoming spring season after what will have been a year without matches has motivated the team to continue to improve. However, the team views this fall as an opportunity not only to prepare but also to continue to grow together as a team and in their faith.
Lindquist said, “We want to be more intentional in planning team events and how we as captains can help lead our teammates in fellowship by spending time together.”
The team is planning prayer groups, team dinners and fire-pit bonding sessions. Ahn praised the captains’ leadership saying, “They have done such a good job organizing us and reminding us that even though we’re just practicing, there is still the opportunity to grow as players and in our relationships with the Lord.”
According to the team captains, Nelson has been an encouraging leader during the disappointments of 2020.
“Coach Jane has given us three goals for the season,” said Senior Captain Lindsey Anderson. “She wants us to grow closer to the Lord, she wants us to grow academically, she wants us to grow in our tennis game. These three areas of growth have been a grounding list that pushes us all to seek the Lord in everything.”
“I’m just trusting the Lord one day at a time and just really relying on him to take care of things. Nelson said. “He’s been completely faithful as He always is.”