University of Nebraska-Lincoln dodgeball team members practice to exhaustion every week on the court, but their hard work won’t end there.
The team has navigated shrinking attendance, logistical struggles and pandemic restrictions through the last two years to reach its first-ever national tournament appearance.
When COVID-19 hit UNL in early 2020, the team experienced a massive reduction in membership, from over 20 members to just a handful. Like many registered student organizations across campus, the group struggled to maintain membership and a sense of normalcy as campus was shut down, said former President Robyn MacDonald.
Still, co-captain Dustin Spunk said, the team has rebounded strongly and attended its first national tournament as an organization this spring in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Many players also view the sport as a chance to enjoy a social gathering and a much-needed break from the stresses of college life, which were only exacerbated by the pandemic, he said.
“Dodgeball has meant a lot to me over the last three and a half years that I’ve been on the team,” Sprunk said.
But it wasn’t easy to navigate the pandemic, MacDonald said. The club saved money by not traveling, but it was difficult to keep players focused and interested in the sport while pandemic-related pressures, both academic and personal, pushed them away from practices.
Pandemic regulations forced the club to move from its typical surface on a gymnasium floor to astroturf in the Cook Pavilion, where team members had to replicate the lines of a dodgeball court on that surface.
The extra challenges of COVID-19 also meant some members couldn’t be as engaged as they would have liked, and some left the club altogether, said MacDonald, who has since graduated. She served as the organization’s vice president for the 2020-21 academic year and president for the 2022 fall semester.
Additionally, team members could only scrimmage against each other because playing other universities was not an option. And playing an aggressive sport against the same people week in and week out can get intense, MacDonald said.
“I think we were all disappointed to not have the opportunity to go play others,” she said, “and so it kind of felt by the end of last year that there was just a lot of disappointment in the year and a lot of frustration in having to navigate the pandemic as a club.”
But the club hit reset at the beginning of this academic year, she said, recruiting hard and planning big about where the club could go, hoping to go to nationals and perform well there.
One of those new recruits, Gabe Moseman, a junior political science major, said he joined the team because his friends were involved and it was an opportunity to participate in college athletics.
“I’ve played dodgeball a lot growing up and in school,” he said, “but this was a different world, coming in and learning strategies and different ways to throw the ball. And it’s a nice team sport, which is something I never really did when I was in school.”
As a new student at UNL, Moseman said he saw dodgeball as a chance to get involved on campus and adapt to his new surroundings. He’s headed to nationals with the team this spring and is excited to represent the Huskers, he said.
Ethan Glenn, another co-captain and senior chemical engineering major, said the pandemic regulations were difficult to adapt to.
“Everyone who was showing up was definitely very confused, just on what we were allowed to do,” he said. “How much contact we were allowed and different rules on masks were just constantly getting changed.”
But along with the rest of campus, he said, the club found its rhythm and carved out a way forward through practices. Glenn said it’s been nice to have a place to relieve stress amid the pandemic; dodgeball has provided a place to have fun and think about things other than school.
“I’m definitely proud of what we’ve done,” he said. “The biggest thing was just keeping the club alive and then after this all, being able to say that we’ve grown the club and we’re doing really well now actually.”