Carlow University coaches share thoughts on season cancellations

Sean Meyers -

Head Coach Glenn Zinsmeister talking to his teamPhoto by Karina Graziani

PITTSBURGH --- The COVID-19 pandemic has affected nearly everyone's lives over the past few weeks. The sports world, in particular, has been radically altered as a result of the virus, as nearly all athletic events have been suspended or cancelled. That includes the Carlow University athletic programs, as the NAIA cancelled the remainder of spring sports midway through March. As a result, the Celtics softball, track & field, golf, and women's tennis programs had their campaigns end prematurely, which has impacted dozens of student-athletes and coaches at the University.

The four teams were all at different stages of their seasons when the NAIA rendered its verdict. The Celtics softball team was about to wrap up a week-long venture in Florida, in which the team participated in a series of nonconference games. The track & field team was transitioning from the indoor session, which wrapped up recently, and preparing for the start of the outdoor season. Golf, meanwhile, had just resumed practice for the spring season after a five-month layoff following fall competition. Lastly, tennis was gearing up for its first matches of the school year.

The tennis team had been practicing for months in preparation of the season-opener at home March 21. Although the players and coaches accepted the reasoning behind the decision, the disappointment in the short-term was significant among the Celtics.

"You put in so much work over those two to three months of practicing, and getting the girls conditioned athletically, and you get to a point where you're ready for competition. The girls were starting to feel good and mastering a new serving skill or getting their backhand," explained Associate Head Coach Samantha Lovaglio. "When we got told we couldn't practice anymore, it was a big letdown, but we feel like it's what's best for them and us."

The Celtics are expected to return all eight players for next season, however, and for a team comprised almost entirely of underclassmen and walk-ons, the extra time could be a blessing in disguise.

"If anything, it will probably help us in the fact that they are getting more time to hone in on their skills before we get to play with them again," Samantha Lovaglio noted.

She and Head Coach Gina Lovaglio have utilized a group chat to maintain contact with the players, and the coaches have also sent a workout schedule that includes exercises three days a week. Additionally, for the first few weeks after the cancellation of the season, several of the players were able to partake in scrimmages at their local courts, while still abiding by the social distancing guidelines. Still, the coaches have given plenty of leeway for the players during this unprecedented time, as athletics have become secondary to their health and well-being.

"We're not being too crazy on them right now, because it's a crazy time we're all going through," Gina Lovaglio said. "It's the best thing for them, health wise. It's the best thing for all of us, health wise. But of course, with that came sadness and disappointment. They never even got to play a match. I think that was another thing that hit home for them."

Some may argue that it's better to have never started the season, as opposed to just getting into a groove and then having that momentum snatched away. For many players on the Carlow softball team, that's exactly what happened while the team was in the Sunshine State. The Celtics played 11 games over the span of six days in Clermont, Fla., compiling a 2-9 mark. The last two games of the trip, scheduled for Saturday, March 14, were cancelled, so the Celtics played their final games of the season in a doubleheader that Friday.

While the team's record wasn't sterling, Carlow softball Head Coach Glenn Zinsmeister noted that his players experienced a chaotic time.

"I think as a group, we had a lot of distractions," the second-year head coach said. "There were a lot of emails flying around; the girls had a lot of stuff flying around from a school perspective."

Those distractions away from the diamond didn't just apply to the players, though, as Zinsmeister was also significantly impacted. As a clinical director, Zinsmeister addressed the affect this pandemic could have on the future careers of his players, 15 or 16 of whom are majoring in the medical field.

"I always make sure I lend a little bit of my experience with that," said Zinsmeister, who witnessed the HIV scare in the late 1980s. "This is what nurses sign up to do. It is a challenging time for them, because it's something they've never seen before. And it's something that the health care system - we haven't seen anything of this magnitude in a lot of years."

When shifting focus back the diamond, Zinsmeister realizes that there's no substitute for the experience his players would have gained from the dozens of games left on the slate. That doesn't mean that his players can't continue to hone their skills, however.

"I told them to go home and make sure they adjusted to their academics, but beyond that, I told them to do what they usually do to keep themselves where they need to be," he detailed. "Some of the greatest hitters spend about 90 percent of the time on the tee and only 10 percent from live hitting. The pitchers obviously are going to have to get their throws in, and they'll do that. They usually have someone in their family who catches them anyhow.

"The elite players are the ones that just do this naturally," he continued. "It's probably the players that aren't necessary at the top of the rung that you have to remind a little bit more."

Additionally, if the social distancing guidelines are lessened or lifted by the summer, Zinsmeister is hopeful that more travel softball options could become available for college players.

"You may see some 23U teams where you didn't see that in the past, just based on the fact that the girls are missing the game so much," he said.

With just one player expected to move on from the program, and with at least four players already committed to join the team next year, Zinsmeister is optimistic that the Celtics can continue to make strides, even with the cancellation of the majority of the season.

For the track & field team, the results are still fresh from the winter indoor session. Some Carlow athletes achieved great accomplishments in the indoor season, while others tasted disappointment. The chance to repeat that success, or redeem previous shortcomings, disappeared when the spring season was cancelled. 

"I was very disappointed. I was looking forward to a very productive outdoor season," said Head Coach Tony Anderson.

While the River States Conference Indoor Championships were held in early February, some Celtics were still competing in the indoor season into early March. Juniors Olivia Miller (Bolivar, Pa.) and Larissa Kijowski (Dayton, Pa.) trekked to South Dakota for the NAIA National Championship.

Carlow was just about to begin spring session practices with the first meet, the Geneva College Golden Tornado Classic, scheduled for March 21 in Beaver Falls.

Overseeing more than two dozen athletes between the men's and women's squads, Anderson made sure to reach out to the teams following the cancellation of the season.

"I did advise them to make sure they take this opportunity to still get some lifting in, get in some necessary workouts," he said. "I did forward everybody some workouts. I'm hoping that they're doing them. It's entirely up to the athletes as to what they're getting in at this point.

"It's very easy right now to sit inside and eat and get out of shape," he added. "I'm hoping that's not what they're doing."

The Celtics roster contains six seniors, although Anderson believes three of those athletes could return for the next school year with their additional eligibility. He also plans to supplement the roster with seven or eight new recruits for next season, although the suspension of the high school season in Pennsylvania means that he likely won't find a few more late bloomers to add to the program.

"It is a blow, in that I don't get a chance to see a lot of these high school athletes compete during their senior year," Anderson revealed.

As for Anderson himself, he's in uncharted territory this spring.

"I've pretty much been coaching since I stopped competing myself in 1988. This is the first hiatus I've really had," he said. "I'm not the type of person who likes to be in. I like to be out and about and socializing, and that's kind of hard right now."

One activity Anderson plans to pursue with his abundance of free time this spring and summer is golf.

Unfortunately for the Celtics golf team, playing competitively is no longer a possibility this season. After three outdoor practices, the Celtics were gearing up for the first tri-match of the spring season on March 21 against rival Point Park University and Grove City College.

"Any competitor is going to be disappointed when something that they worked hard for isn't going to happen," noted Head Coach Ryan Shank. "In the scheme of things, we understand why it was."

Unlike most sports, however, golf remained available after the initial social distancing measures were enacted in the area. Several courses in Western Pennsylvania stayed open until late March, including Carlow's home course Youghiogheny County Club.

"Once they postponed the season and I could no longer have formal practices, I told them to call Yough and get out and play," Shank said of his instructions to his men's and women's players. "They did get some rounds in, but once the stay at home mandate came down, I told them you have to stop doing that."

The Carlow players also received a video detailing how to properly read greens, but there's no substitute for actually hitting balls, according to Shank.

"They understand that in order to be good, you have to have a club in your hand. You can chip in your yard all day long by yourself," he stated.

While at least two seniors will move on from the program, three others could potentially return for the fall season.

While the unprecedented circumstances of these past several weeks provided unforeseen challenges for all of the Celtics spring athletes, the hope is that the players individually, and the teams collectively, will learn and grow from this. Regardless of what happens in future campaigns, there's no doubt that the 2020 spring sports teams will forever have a place in history at Carlow University.

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