Coaches Reflect on Pandemic Seasons

Here’s what some of the Thunder head coaches have to say about the year in sports.

By Record Staff
May 3, 2021
Wheaton Thunder Women's Soccer practice. Photo: Amelia Sniffin.

It’s been a strange year for Wheaton athletics. In March 2020, all spring sports were cancelled and students were sent home due to COVID-19. In the fall, all CCIW seasons were cancelled, so many student athletes participated only in intrasquad competition. Winter sports seasons were cancelled through December, but when January rolled around, Wheaton allowed winter and spring athletes to begin resuming competition under the Wheaton Safe Thunder Strong athletic guidelines. The Record reached out to the Thunder head coaches to hear what they had to say about their seasons. Their email responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Photo provided by Jim Gruenwald.

Jim Gruenwald

 
Head Wrestling Coach 

 

What was a highlight of this season?

The hug I got from Hunter Harrison ‘21 after he won his last college match. 

 

Did you have any goals about COVID-19? 

To be strong and compassionate — Christ-like — for those in need at Wheaton College.

What is something you are looking forward to next season? 

A return to faith and facts — life without being controlled by the fears of COVID-19.

 

What is something God has taught you this year that you would like to carry into next season? 

To be thankful for what I have and not unthankful for what I don’t have.

 

A word of encouragement for graduating seniors:

Philippians 4:13 is the key to handling the highs and lows of life — I can handle all things through him who gives me power. Remember, “Jesus Christ is Life, the Rest is Just Wrestling.” So wrestle well, cling to the cross, lean on the body of Christ, bear one another’s burdens and know you have great value in the loving eyes of God the Father. So simple. Not so easy, but you have been equipped. I believe in you even when you don’t believe in yourself, because You Are More. More than your lows and highs. More than how the world defines you. You Are More. You are a part of the body of Christ and were created in the image of God. You Are More. 

Wheaton Track and Field pole vault event. Photo: Amelia Sniffin.

Scott Bradley 

 
Track & Field Head Coach 

 

What was a highlight of this season?

We have had several highlights but a couple that stand out are just witnessing how hard and passionately our athletes have competed in situations where there was no one around them cheering them on, the joy of coming to practice and seeing our students with their masks off enjoying each other’s company and the incredible competition that we witnessed at our meet, when our men’s 4 x 400 had a riveting dual with Washington University in St. Louis (two of the best relay teams in the country). This was one of the first meets we had with spectators, and the noise of the cheering in the final seconds of the race was stirring and a welcome reminder of how athletics used to be. 

 

Did you have any goals about COVID-19? 

I really did not have any goals that would be different from any other year. Of course, we wanted to do all that we could to stay COVID safe, but our goals remained the same: primarily to honor and worship God through all that we do.

 

What is something you are looking forward to next season? 

Hopefully, we will be back to normal and we can just relax and enjoy life without the threat of COVID hanging over everyone’s head. I hope to see a renewal of community and vibrancy across campus. The athletic teams have given up a lot this year. However, we have still been able to enjoy community to a much greater extent than many people in our campus community, since we have still been allowed to practice and even compete together. Many students on campus do not enjoy the same experience. I fear for their isolation, and I hope that the opportunities for communal activity will greatly increase next year.

 

What is something God has taught you this year that you would like to carry into next season? 

We have certainly been reminded this year of God’s sovereignty and our need to trust him and to relinquish control. Also, a reminder to be grateful for all we have. I have tried to go to each and every meet with the realization that this may be the last one, and just to cherish what we have been given on that day.

 

A word of encouragement for graduating seniors:

To be honest, the first year or two out of Wheaton can be a tough time for a lot of our grads. I don’t think that you realize how incredibly unique and special this place is until you don’t have it anymore. That coupled with the fact that it may take some time to find some direction and purpose post-graduation can be difficult. It is the first time in 20 plus years of living where your life is not basically scripted for you. Now you have to decide what is next, and that can be an unnerving realization. (Sorry if that is not too encouraging!) In the midst of all of it, keep trusting and seeking God. He will not disappoint in a world full of hurt and unrest. He is the only one who can make sense of it all and bring rest to our souls. Relentlessly continue seeking Him no matter what comes your way!

Wheaton Thunder Women's Soccer practice. Photo: Amelia Sniffin.

Pete Felske 

 
Head Women’s Soccer Coach

 

Because of COVID, our 2020 fall season never happened. We spent that time incorporating our new players into the program, training a few times a week and encouraging our players to use their “extra” time to immerse themselves in the Wheaton environment and get involved with other activities across campus. The spring semester was unique as well. Our coaching staff chose not to compete this spring for the simple reason that we have a very strong squad and didn’t want to jeopardize what could be an exciting 2021 fall season from an injury standpoint. Therefore, we trained daily and had one controlled scrimmage against Carroll University.

 

What was a highlight of this season?

There were two highlights this year for me. The first was our scrimmage at Carroll. For the first time in over 17 months, we loaded up the bus and stepped foot on the field against someone other than ourselves. It felt good to get back to a game day routine, if only for one day.

The second highlight was our end-of-the-year “banquet.” As we all sat around two fire pits on campus, it was great to hear our players share their experiences from the year and recall memories of our senior athletes who have spent three great seasons and an additional strange and unique year in our program. God has used all the good times, along with the challenging times, to grow our players into the women he wants them to be. It was a touching end to a very challenging year.

 

Did you have any goals about COVID-19? 

On the field, our goals were to keep the players engaged, keep things on the lighter side, limit the injury situation and have everyone in the program realize the potential for a great 2021 season. 

 

What is something you are looking forward to next season? 

Getting back to a normal routine of competition will be exciting for all of us. Our athletes are competitors, so there’s nothing like game day. If we get and stay healthy, and we continue to train well, 2021 should be an exciting and very successful season. The players are ready to go and I look forward to watching them reap the rewards of their hard work on game day.

 

What is something God has taught you this year that you would like to carry into next season? 

PATIENCE. The Lord is teaching me patience. I’m a person/coach that, when I see an issue or a problem, I want to fix it fast. COVID, and all the challenges that came with it, doesn’t allow for that. I’ve realized more than ever that I need to be patient and let the Lord work things out in his own time, for his ultimate purpose, in every area of my life.

 

A word of encouragement for graduating seniors:

I am extremely humbled to have had the opportunity to coach our senior group and thankful to have had them and their families involved in our program. I pray that both the times of great joy and tremendous disappointment have grown them in their faith in Jesus. The next chapter is both exciting and daunting, and Wheaton has prepared them well for whatever lies ahead. My hope is that they stay strong, continue to lean on the friendships and relationships they’ve made along the way and continue to trust the One who knows and holds the future. 

Women's Basketball seniors Bonnie Zeller and Hannah Williams. Photo: Amelia Sniffin.

Kent Madsen

 

Head Women’s Basketball Coach

 

What was a highlight of this season? 

I was grateful that our seniors, Hannah Williams and Bonnie Zeller, were able to have their parents and some siblings at the final game of our season and their careers. We had the best record in-conference at 11-1.

 

Did you have any goals about COVID-19? 

We just tried to approach this season as any other, so the goal was to keep things as normal as possible in relation to basketball. We only had to alter a few things throughout the season. Because we have a smaller roster size and the players enjoy spending time together, we knew if someone tested positive for COVID it would most likely affect the whole team. We are thankful we were able to play every regular season game.

 

What is something you are looking forward to next season?

I think we are all just looking forward to a year without masks, a normal 25 game season and our usual team activities.

 

What is something God has taught you this year that you would like to carry into next season?

I would say this experience again shows the power and truth of God’s word. The verses that have been ever present in my mind throughout the year are Proverbs 3:5-6, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.” This year had many challenges, yet it was an outstanding season and I was glad our players were able to play a game they enjoy competing in.

 

A word of encouragement for graduating seniors:

As I have talked with my seniors they have told me this was their favorite season of basketball. Yes, the season had it’s challenges but Bonnie and Hannah were tremendous leaders and they encapsulated the type of attitude and effort you desire in such circumstances. These seniors are going to do great things as they move into their professional career, as long as they keep the main thing: keeping Christ at the center of their lives. We were blessed to coach Bonnie and Hannah, and they will be missed.

Men's Basketball Team practices. Photo: Amelia Sniffin.

Michael Schauer 

 
Head Men’s Basketball Coach

 

What was a highlight of this season? 

Honestly the highlight may have been the day we scrimmaged Indiana Wesleyan University. The fact that we actually got to play and experience competition was so encouraging. I think most of us wondered if we would get to do so.

 

Did you have any goals about COVID-19? 

No real goals. Just get to compete and enjoy the experience as a team

 

What is something you are looking forward to next season?

We return the vast majority of the team that just went 12-1 and finished ranked 8th in the country.  We could be pretty good.

 

A word of encouragement for graduating seniors:

Just worry about today. Tomorrow has enough troubles of its own. Perseverance produces character and character produces hope. 

Jacob Ayers

 
Head Men’s Swimming Coach

 

What was a highlight of this season? 

This season we were not able to compete with other teams first semester but were able to conduct “blue-orange” intrasquad meets. We probably had as much fun racing each other first semester as we did racing other teams second semester!

 

Ayers coaching during swim team practice. Photo: Amelia Sniffin.

As far as swimming accomplishments, despite not being able to train nearly as much, we still had 44 lifetime best times first semester, and 80 lifetime bests second semester. Additionally, freshman Anthony Fitzgerald broke the school record in the 100 breast and was voted the CCIW Athlete of the Year for men. Sophomore Abby Pardridge was voted CCIW Athlete of the Year for women. And Sophie Pelling was named CCIW Co-Rookie of the Year for Women.

 

Did you have any goals about COVID-19? 

We only had two goals: to complete the season COVID-free, and to rekindle a love for the sport in an unusual setting. We accomplished both!

 

What is something you are looking forward to next season?

The men and the women trained separately this year. We are looking forward to having them train together next year, God-willing!

 

What is something God has taught you this year that you would like to carry into next season?

I learned never to take anything for granted. Each day we were able to swim together was a gift, even if it didn’t feel the same as a “normal” year. Many people were affected by COVID in much more severe ways than our team and our campus, so I have learned to be joyful and grateful for each day.

 

A word of encouragement for graduating seniors:

I told one of our graduating seniors that I regretted that the freshmen didn’t get to have him as a captain in a “normal” year. Since there were many activities we didn’t get to do this year, they didn’t get to know him in the same way they would have in other years. His response was that maybe this was the perfect year for him to be captain, and to lead us through this year doing whatever it was we were able to do. I would encourage all the seniors to think of it that way. God brought you to this place and this time for a reason. Embrace that. Rejoice in that. Learn from that.

Women's Swim Team practice. Photo: Amelia Sniffin.

Meghan Ayers

 

Head Women’s Swimming Coach

 

What was a highlight of this season? 

We hosted “Blue and Orange” meets during the first semester. The team divided into two squads and competed. It was exciting to see the camaraderie formed between teammates and some really fast swimming! 

 

Did you have any goals about COVID-19? 

As coaches, we wanted to stay safe during our season and help our athletes refuel a love for the sport. We completed the season without any COVID cases and many personal best times, and we were very grateful for that.

 

What is something you are looking forward to next season?

Because of COVID protocols, we had to have separate practices and a reduced schedule. I am looking forward to the women’s and men’s team being back in the lanes together and running practice at full strength.

 

What is something God has taught you this year that you would like to carry into next season?

Trusting in the Lord is sustainable; the opposite is not.

Wheaton Women's Volleyball plays in a meet. Photo: Amelia Sniffin.

Stephanie Schmidt

 

Head Women’s Volleyball Coach

 

What was a highlight of this season?

I think our team would definitely say our final match, when we beat the third-ranked team in the nation (Carthage) in four sets. Everyone was focused and played great, and it was an awesome win.

 

Did you have any goals about COVID-19? 

We just wanted to approach every day with gratitude. We knew there would be difficult things to work through, but we wanted to always be grateful to play, and we wanted to view every day as a chance to get a little better.

Photo provided by Stephanie Schmidt.

What is something you are looking forward to next season?

This spring, we had a really small group (due to COVID-related absences and player injuries), so we never had the chance to scrimmage in practice. We’ll have a much bigger group next spring, so I’m looking forward to having more dynamic practices. I’m also excited and hopeful that we’ll be able to have fans at our matches again.

 

What is something God has taught you this year that you would like to carry into next season?

This was a season of life where God just continued to show what a provider and sustainer he is. The ways that he took care of our team’s needs, and always took care of even the smallest details in the midst of struggle, amazed us time and again. That wasn’t necessarily something new that we learned, but he was so faithful and those reminders were constant.

 

A word of encouragement for graduating seniors:

The old adage that “sports are a microcosm of life” is so true, but you’ve experienced that even more profoundly than most student-athletes. I know this has been a painful season because you’ve lost so much, but I’m confident that one day it will also end up being one that taught you the most. Thank you for all the time and energy you’ve given to Wheaton athletics, and the legacies you’ve left behind.

Wheaton College, IL

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