Beyond just impacting everyday life, COVID-19 also upended the sports landscape as we know it. In response to the widespread cancellation of college sports during the 2020-2021 season, the NCAA announced a rule that would give athletes an extra year of eligibility. From Division III to Division I schools, this was a big opportunity for all athletes to be able to play the full four years instead of just three.
The ruling impacted team roster sizes, recruiting numbers and scholarship amounts, which put both coaches and players in situations that they had never experienced before. Athletes who decided to use their extra year of eligibility were not guaranteed a full scholarship or even the chance to keep playing. This increased competition between the returning players and new players joining the team.
Besides those main impacts which involve the team as a whole, diving into some of the experiences of athletes from a smaller school like West Chester University puts into perspective the impact that this ruling had on a personal level.
Having a season just end unexpectedly is a hard situation to be put in. As graduate student Hallie Weaver, whose cross country season was canceled, put it, “it’s hard when you put in a lot of work and time to something and you’re unable to finish what you started.”
Her fellow teammate Bella Marchini felt the same way. She was actually almost done healing from an injury when the season was canceled, and she felt like she “had done so much work to get to where I was and then all of that was taken away from me.”
Even when these sports were able to resume activities, it was nowhere near the same. Weaver elaborated on multiple struggles that the team had to deal with. These included “not getting the proper training because you don’t have a coach there to monitor what you’re doing” and a “lack of access to lifting and extra conditioning training.”
Marchini was actually at Shippensburg University during this time, and she detailed how even when everybody was sent home the team made sure to “support each other virtually and stay connected through texts and social media.”
The main goal of taking that extra fifth COVID year was the desire to not be done with your sport and to finish what you had started. “I had lost over a year of competing and I just felt like I would regret not doing it if I had the opportunity too,” said Weaver. This is what the NCAA had in mind when they implemented this rule, they knew that their athletes would be unfulfilled without having that opportunity.
This rule was especially beneficial to Marchini. “I truly thought I was done with college athletics,” she said. But after hearing about the NCAA’s decision, she decided to come to West Chester University for graduate school and to use the remainder of her eligibility that she had lost during COVID.
It’s not easy to just walk away from your teammates and coaches and everyone else that you may have met on campus under normal circumstances, let alone under COVID when you were forced to. Weaver touched on this subject by saying how glad she was that she decided to take the extra year because she “really likes the team and everyone here at West Chester.”
And in the case of Bella, when she didn’t know that she’d be able to finish her eligibility, losing the opportunity to run cross country was especially hard because it was such a large part of her identity.
Although COVID took a hit on not only people’s lives but also their collegiate and academic lives, there was a bright side in the end with the NCAA’s implementation of an extra year to participate. This gave athletes the opportunity to finish out their careers on a high note and get one final go around with their teammates and coaches that they may not have received otherwise.
This final go around is going pretty well for these athletes as Marchini recently earned First Team All Conference honors after finishing seventh out of 158 runners at the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference Championships. Weaver wasn’t far behind her as she finished 42nd and this effort helped West Chester finish 11th out of 18 teams. Both athletes will be back in action for the NCAA Atlantic Region Championships on Nov. 19 which will finally give them the ending to their careers that they deserve thanks to the COVID fifth year rule.
Colin Bradley is a third year English major with a minor in journalism. CB953277@wcupa.edu