Josh Adams drove over to the bright green grass of Whittier Fields to start training for his fourth year of men’s ultimate frisbee practice and second year as club president.
But this year, his team, which normally travels to tournaments in Iowa, Oklahoma and Texas, won’t be competing against any other schools.
“They cut out travel for this fall semester, which was a big bummer,” Adams said. “That’s something I really look forward to because coming back from summer, you get to play and have fun.”
The University of Nebraska-Lincoln was the first Big Ten university to return to club sports for the approximately 1,000 students involved, according to Zac Brost, senior assistant director for sport programs at UNL.
“From the beginning, it was about how can we find a way for students to do things that are so important to them or vital for their development but do it as safe a way as possible,” Brost said, adding that UNL was “more aggressive” in its approach to maintain club sports this year than most other Big Ten universities.
For the 32 sport clubs — ranging from frisbee to curling and Cross-Fit — the ongoing pandemic forced new rules, regulations and protocols without mandatory COVID-19 testing. Also new this semester was the inability for sport clubs to travel to other schools and play in tournaments. However, even without travel, many students are happy to return to some sense of normalcy.
“As we sat down with all of our clubs, the first question we asked was: ‘In this environment, is this something you even want to explore doing?’” Brost said. “The answer from all of them was yes.”
Sport clubs connect and engage college students outside of the classroom. That, for Brost, is the most important part.
“Most of these students are involved because this is their community,” Brost said. “This is their family here on campus. They would rather continue to have that community and do it in a different way than it looked like in the past than not do it at all.”
Adams, a Michigan native and men’s ultimate frisbee club president, said he didn’t know anyone coming to UNL, and the men’s ultimate club has since become his home and allowed him to grow as a leader.
For UNL alumnus Grantley Thomas, coach of the men’s ultimate team, one of his best memories from college was his time on the team.
“Since then, I’ve played in the semi-professional league,” Thomas said. “I’ve played in three different world championship events for frisbee.”
Under the leadership of Coach Grant, the men’s ultimate team has been a “role model” for conducting club sports during the pandemic, Brost said.
“We’re doing the best we can to stay playing as much as we can,” Adams said. “If we can just follow what our administration has set for us to do, we’ll have a lot of success playing.”
Brost said he has been pleased, not just with the men’s ultimate team, but with all sport clubs following protocols to prevent an outbreak.
Other sport club members like Kealey Jensen, president of the women’s club hockey team, are pleased with the chance to compete even if it’s just against each other.
“I think we all felt grateful that we still had the chance to attempt to do something,” she said. “I honestly don’t think there’s been any kickback in that sense because they’re trying really hard to make it as normal as possible … There’s a lot of effort and thought that has gone into this.”
Without travel this season, some expected less students would show up for sport clubs, but that was not the case with the men’s ultimate team — an influx of students consistently show up for Tuesday and Thursday night practice.
“For the most part, they can’t really go out and do anything else COVID-wise,” Adams said. “It’s a good way for them to go outside and be active at the same time and stay as safe as we can from the virus.”
Natalie Milhouse, president of the women’s soccer club, said she has seen an increase in freshman trying out for the team.
“But as far as our old team and returning players, a lot of them didn’t want to come back because we weren’t playing games,” she said, “And we were only practicing once a week for fun, instead of normally, we practice twice a week.”
While some may focus on the negative consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, Thomas said some good that has come out of it, too.
“We can take things slower and introduce these concepts that we’d normally be introducing one on top of each other in a more sequential, thought out manner to hopefully give people less information they have to remember and build the basic knowledge to understand the sport rather than try to do it all at once,” Thomas said.
Brost said he doesn’t imagine the administration would reverse course and allow sport clubs to travel.
“I never say never,” he said. “The thing to understand is it’s not apples to apples when we’re talking about Big Ten varsity athletics football and sport programs at Campus Recreation. Just to give you an idea of the scope of it, if we were able to get access to mass rapid testing and do that multiple times a week, that would be a great start.”
Sport clubs, however, do not have the same access to mass testing resources that the UNL athletics department does. Even if the sport clubs athletes did, the administration would have to find universities who have the same protocols.
Even though sport clubs players are not required to test negative, the players on the team have been great at following preventative measures and being cautious, Adams said.
“We stress that if at any point you don’t feel OK, it’s best to not come to practice that day and probably go get yourself tested,” Adams said. “We just go until you don’t feel good, and if you don’t feel good, don’t come.”
The biggest change for sport clubs sports is “just being conscious of it all the time,” Adams added.
“We’re limited with what we can do at practice. We have to do things a little more spaciously,” he said. “When we’re in a huddle, we’re always spaced out.”
Jensen said the 13-member hockey team feels safe practicing at the Breslow Ice Hockey Center with enough room to distance while doing drills, and no one else is in the rink.
When looking forward to spring, few have answers, and Brost said he does not know if travel will be allowed or even when a decision will be made.
“The goal posts are moving all of the time,” he said. “I’m a fairly optimistic person. So much of it depends on if we have a vaccine coming. Nationwide, are people doing a better job with protocols that are in place to try to keep spread down?
The top priority right now, Brost said, is making sure sport club athletes are staying safe.
“We’re so focused on our campus, and the facts that the students are doing a really good job,” Brost said. “When it comes to traveling and competing against other campuses, now I’ve got tons more campuses that I have to worry about. We have a hard enough time on our own.”