Outside the East Gym, you see a familiar campus scene. Phones lay flat across the blue basketball courts to light up the night sky. Music bounces off the concrete from bluetooth speakers while students dribble under the moonlight. But as UC Santa Cruz athletes started to make their return to campus mid-February, athletic facilities were back to hosting more than nighttime pick-up games.
“Activity isn’t just for athletics,” said UCSC Athletics and Recreation Director Sue Harriman. “It is for the students who are playing basketball outside the east gym at 10 o’clock at night. Physical activity, regardless of whether you’re keeping score or not, is something that hopefully the majority of people are excited to get back to.”
After a year of being left on their toes waiting to hear when their seasons would start, the UCSC athletics and recreation department announced its return on March 18. The department is bringing 13 of 15 teams back to practice in person and some to compete, as well as facilitating limited outdoor recreation for all students. This is the first time that student athletes are heading back to the field after the cancellation of all NCAA winter and spring championships and the shutdown of UCSC athletics facilities in March 2020.
“When we were finally given the go ahead that we were going to have a season, I think a lot of our team couldn’t believe it,” said UCSC Track and Field and Cross Country coach David Kelch. “There was some hesitancy and some trepidation, but when we went to our first competition, it was weird how normal it seemed. The joy and excitement and support our team had for each other was so special and when we got back to practice the enthusiasm was just off the charts.”
Klech said in an email that it is imperative for his athletes to start now instead of next year, and that missing another season would have big effects on physical development, student athlete retention, and team culture.
Over the past couple months, Harriman has been working closely with the university resumption team, NCAA, and the county of Santa Cruz to make sure this return is done as safely as possible. Harriman said there is no reason for them to wait any longer.
“We have the opportunity to be able to be on campus and oversee everyone’s health and safety,” Harriman said. “We were able to within all the guidelines, be able to slowly resume activity.”
Student athletes and coaches are required to get tested for COVID-19 twice per week on campus, and the sports medicine team is equipped with rapid tests for away games and meets. All athletics and recreation staff have been able to get vaccinated.
Julia Hernandez, center midfielder on the women’s soccer team, said she feels safe going back and that the coaching staff is being very responsible with the return. For example, women’s soccer will begin practice two times a week on campus starting April 12, with a third virtual practice for the people who aren’t located in Santa Cruz.
“I’m looking forward to actually playing soccer,” Hernandez said. “I haven’t played it in so long, and it’s just mainly pick up games with my friends, but this time around it will be a structured practice. I get to actually play soccer again.”
The athletics staff and coaches have made sure that students who are unable to be back in person this spring are still on the team and involved any way they feel comfortable. While Coach Klech embraces the in-person return, he is also making sure his athletes are not sacrificing their safety and comfort. Many athletes made the decision not to return to Santa Cruz because of financial setbacks and COVID safety concerns.
“We tried to develop a support system and community to get through dramatic changes everyone was experiencing in everyday life,” wrote Klech in his response. ”Athletics was not the number one priority, but for a lot of our student-athletes the routing of training provided a strong sense of certainty and predictability in their lives when so many things were out of their control.”
Tennis, soccer, and women’s volleyball have returned to practicing in person. Competitions are back on for the men’s volleyball, track and field, swim and dive, and women’s golf teams, who are on the schedule to continue competing through May 2021.
The athletics department is excited, not only for sports to come back, but also for other outdoor activities hosted by the recreation department, such as kayaking in Monterey Bay, backpacking trips, and hikes on campus. Recreation activities began over spring break.
As campus athletic facilities continue to open, life for student athletes is getting back on track.
“We talk in our program about ‘bankable moments,’” said Klech in his email. “Moments where you surprised yourself or did something you weren’t expecting that you can always draw on for strength when you’re nervous, intimidated, not feeling your best. I think recognizing all the perseverance we have shown over the last year and how we can draw on that strength for a variety of circumstances in the future.”
• 4/16: Swim and Dive at 2021 Pacific Collegiate Swimming Conference Championships – Irvine, CA
• 4/18-4/20: Women’s Golf at 2021 American Southwest Conference Championships – Brownwood, Texas
• 4/24: Men’s Volleyball vs. NCAA Tournament First Round @ Salem Civic Center – Salem, VA
• 4/26-4/27: Women’s Golf at Coast-to-Coast Invite – Sulphur Springs, WV
• 4/31-5/1 : Track & Field at Coast to Coast Athletic Conference Outdoor Championships – Salisbury, MD
• 5/11: Women’s Golf at 2020-21 NCAA DIII Women’s Golf Championships – East Lansing, MI