Fall sport athletes reflect on not playing for NCAA Tournaments

Volleyball, soccer among those who see 2021 SCAC championship as the end goal


Claire Sammons

Senior volleyball player Avery Tuggle stands in front of the Bell Athletic Center at Trinity. Tuggle has decided to come back in the fall of 2021 for a fifth season with the Tigers.

In early 2020, the world of sports faced unprecedented circumstances as COVID-19 closed down stadiums across the nation. The National Basketball Association (NBA) and Major League Baseball (MLB) were among the leagues that ultimately decided to postpone their seasons at the professional level.

Trinity sports also saw all spring seasons cut short. Lauren Bolish, a junior goalkeeper on the women’s soccer team, remembers working a baseball game when she received the news that Trinity students were to finish the rest of their semester remotely and off-campus.

“I was working a Trinity baseball game last spring when I received the email saying we would be sent home due to the growing concern of the pandemic,” Bolish said.

She mentioned the heartbreak shared between the team as they collectively learned that their season was cancelled. It wasn’t long before she began wondering about whether the fall season would be affected.

The NBA and MLB seasons resumed after a months-long hiatus, and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) schedule got underway after extensive debate. This might have led many to believe that things were back to normal across all of college sports, but that was far from the case.

Quentin Van Der Lee, a senior midfielder on the men’s soccer team, was always skeptical about “returning to normal.”

“I always had a feeling that the pandemic would impact our season. At times, I was not hopeful we would have any season at all,” Van Der Lee said.

At one point, it looked like Van Der Lee’s belief might have ended up becoming reality. On Aug. 5, the NCAA officially announced that all fall championships at the Division III level would be cancelled due to the pandemic.

“It certainly was not easy to come to grips with, knowing there was a chance I might never play for Trinity again,” said Van Der Lee.

It was a complicated process, but in the end, the hard work and persistence of the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference (SCAC) and its member schools allowed student athletes to return to play this spring. Avery Tuggle, a senior member of the volleyball team, was especially happy with the outcome.

“In hindsight, I’m glad that it postponed the end of my volleyball career. I wasn’t ready for it to be over or to leave my team. This is by far the best team I’ve ever been a part of so I’m feeling extremely lucky to get another year with them,” Tuggle said.

Van Der Lee and Bolish both shared their disappointment in regard to the absence of an NCAA Championship. Van Der Lee described not playing for an NCAA Championship as “strange,” while Bolish pointed to the success that her team had experienced the previous year, reaching the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament before falling to the eventual national champions. But there was a resounding appreciation from both of them in regards to the season that they did get, even though it didn’t look exactly the way they had hoped.

“I know we were all a bit upset when we saw how the season was pushed to the spring and our preseason scrimmages were canceled. Even more so when we found out there was not going to be an NCAA tournament. However, I also know we were all extremely happy and fortunate to be given the chance to have a season,” Bolish said.

For Van Der Lee, who was skeptical until he finally stepped foot back on the pitch to play a game, there was some relief.

“When spring games came around, I was grateful that Trinity and the SCAC gave us the opportunity to play at any capacity,” Van Der Lee said.

But for these athletes and their teams, it wasn’t just a matter of having a season. In 2019, the men’s soccer team had advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament in what some may have considered a “down” year for the group. Women’s soccer was neck-and-neck through more than 80 minutes of play against the eventual national champion. And the Tiger volleyball team made an appearance in the Final Four, also falling to the eventual national champions. Although they wouldn’t have an NCAA Championship representing the end of the line this spring, the SCAC ensured that conference postseason tournaments would still take place.

Admittedly, things were different, but each team approached the season in a different manner. Van Der Lee explained that the men’s soccer team took it upon themselves to focus more on each individual game.

“With only eight or nine games, each game had much more importance,” Van Der Lee said.

Motivation felt slightly different, with only a SCAC Championship at the end of the line, but the most important thing he said, “was ultimately to prepare for next fall and ensure the team is moving in the right direction come August next year.”

For Tuggle and the volleyball team, she noticed that there was more emphasis placed on development.

“With all of this extra time and less at stake we’ve really gotten to come at training with a more detailed manner. Even getting to go back to the basics has been really great and you can tell we’re reaping the benefits in this unique spring season,” Tuggle said.

Junior soccer player Lauren Bolish stands in front of the Bell Athletic Center. Bolish reflected on the shortened 2021 season during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by Claire Sammons.

For Bolish and the women’s soccer team, the goal seems to be to keep things business-as-usual.

“I don’t think the reality that we will not be playing in the NCAA Championship really has hit me. I wouldn’t say there have been many differences … We continue to stay disciplined, motivated and focused because we have the mentality of competing at the highest level every single time we step on the field,” Bolish said.
And that’s exactly what her team did. The Tigers defeated Schreiner University 9-0 at home in the first round of the SCAC Tournament. Then they made the short trip to Texas Lutheran University (TLU) in Seguin where they defeated TLU 4-0 in a semifinal match and eventually took down the University of Dallas by the same score to be crowned SCAC Champions for the 24th time in school history.

The men’s soccer team was also impressive in their spring season. Van Der Lee helped lead Trinity to a mark of 6-0-1, good enough to be crowned “regular” season champions in the SCAC. The Tigers lost in the semifinal round of the postseason tournament but still posted a positive season after finishing 4th in the standings in 2019.

Tuggle and the volleyball team fell just short of repeating as SCAC champions, as they lost to top ranked Colorado College for the third time this year.

The Tigers have aimed to capitalize on the opportunity to play this spring, but for the two seniors, even more opportunities have opened up. Because of the absence of the NCAA Championships this year, all athletes were granted an extra year of eligibility. Van Der Lee will be taking advantage of this by spending his final year of college soccer at the Division I level with Southern Methodist University (SMU), hoping to compete for an NCAA Title one final time on a larger stage. For Tuggle, she’ll spend the fall with Trinity again, as they look to repeat their successes in 2019 by returning to the Final Four and this time coming out on top.

The COVID-19 pandemic will not soon be forgotten, nor should it. It uprooted the lives of many and left us in an extended time of uncertainty. But for several Trinity athletes, such as Van Der Lee and Tuggle, even the darkest moments brought some light in the end.