WILLIAMSTOWN, MASS. – The 2019 Williams men's soccer team got off to a 3-3-1 start in the month of September, but then the Ephs picked up their level of play and went 4-0-3 in October, extending their string of games without a loss to eight.
The skein of games without a loss grew to nine with a 3-0 win over Bates in the first round of the NESCAC Tournament. The Eph season ended in the NESCAC Semifinals when Tufts edged the Ephs 1-0 in overtime and the Ephs' final season record stood at 8-4-5.
In March when the COVID-19 pandemic arrived and cancelled all of the Eph spring sports there was still hope that fall sports could be played. However, NESCAC, being cautious voted to not have fall sports competitions during the fall of 2020 and the decision about the possibility of winter and spring NESCAC sports was put on hold.
Entering his sixth year at the helm of the Ephs, Erin Sullivan knew that this fall would be different and present many challenges with not having a fall competitive season to look forward to.
Sullivan noted, "It was severely disappointing to have the Fall 2020 season cancelled, not entirely unexpected, but very painful nonetheless. We all love the competitive arena, the opportunity to teach, train, and mentor our players day in and day out, and it's always a privilege to represent Williams especially in season.
"The offseason is quite long in the NESCAC. The initial adjustment probably followed any grief or loss process, (denial, frustration, eventual acceptance, etc.) but we feel ultimate responsibility to players, colleagues, alums, recruits, etc. , so it was important our coaching staff made a quick pivot. The last few months have involved everything from helping players navigate their enrollment decision process, adapting our recruiting to different mediums, continuing our campus roles, and engaging a uniquely complicated process of preparing for an academic year and training season unlike any other. "
Sullivan will have but five first year players on campus this fall so he and his staff have to find ways to remain engaged with not only those new players, but also the veteran players who are taking a semester or full year off. The focus on the five players on campus will be to improve their technical skills and introduce them to collegiate strength and conditioning programs.
"We maintained our typical modes of communication (team emails, check-ins, group chats, Zoom calls, etc.) over the summer months," Sullivan stated. "Now we expect to focus on the small group enrolled and on campus day in and day out while having more of a bi-weekly pulse check with those off campus. Our captains Eli Petrik and Will Felitto have done an outstanding job of being liaisons with our coaching staff, keeping the team connected, and providing general support to everyone in the program."
While this pandemic situation has been hard to deal with Sullivan does not feel it has been the hardest part of coaching. "I would actually say that some of the hardest coaching experiences I've had have been within the throes of the season when there's a lot of expectation, pressure, and time crunch and you don't always have the bandwidth to give everyone or everything the proper attention or at other times when players in our soccer family have experienced significant injury or irreparable loss.
"So, comparatively, we've had time to process things and carefully consider decisions and, while there are still brutal days, we've been relatively fortunate not to be in the same situation as (so many people disproportionately affected by COVID and) our winter and spring sport athletes were back in March when there was almost no notice and significant collateral damage to collegiate careers. My heart still goes out to that entire group of coaches and student-athletes.
"Beyond that, there are a lot of people experiencing hardship and pain around the world right now and so many pivotal issues colliding in this national moment. There are also a lot of selfless heroes on the frontlines since the pandemic began so, in a relative sense, I feel like we as coaches have small problems and big blessings and I try to maintain a positive perspective. We're going to get through this and we're all very fortunate to be in such an informed, engaged, and supportive community here at Williams.
The pandemic not only denied the Ephs a 2020 fall season, but it also has had an effect on recruiting. "Our recruitment of the 2024 and 2025 classes definitely throttled down quite a bit," Sullivan said. "Initially, this was because so many campus visits, recruiting clinics, and college showcases were cancelled and everyone was scrambling to try to undo, reschedule, and predict things. Beyond that we had the ripple effects of current players making their enrollment decisions and the monumental task facing our College and Admission office as they made projections for how many students and student-athletes might take gap years and how that might affect the next few classes here. As always, Lisa Melendy, our Athletic Director, and our colleagues in Admission Office have done an incredible job communicating and being proactive, so we've been able to adjust our recruiting expectations and timelines a bit and, all in all, we remain on the right track moving into 2021 and beyond.
"All three of our seniors (Kevin Garcia Rios, Eli Petrik, and Nick Ranieri) can and will be returning for their senior season on Cole Field in Fall 2021 and that is one of the silver linings of all of this from a team continuity and roster standpoint," noted Sullivan. "That said, we have a unique opportunity to strengthen our club during this extended offseason and we intend to do that in every way possible. In much the same way athletes learn, grow, and mature over the course of the offseason, we can invest this time to bolster our roster and program in every possible way.
Asked if there was anything he learned about himself as a coach in this different time of a pandemic, Sullivan pointed out, "Quite a bit actually. First, I've learned to focus on what I can do and let go of more things out of my control because so many effects of the pandemic are uncontrollable and unpredictable. I've also tried to do a lot of reflection on why I coach and how I can teach better and bring out the best in people, which are always fundamental goals of mine. Fortunately, there have been a lot of professional development opportunities, webinars, and other on and off campus services that have supported coaches during this time. None of us are ever a finished product, so I'm still learning, growing, and adapting every day.
"I'd also say the lack of actual on field coaching, engaging directly with players, and the absence of sports for a period of time has reminded me how much I care about and value these aspects. If absence makes the heart grow fonder, we've all been given a little taste of that in the sporting world and, hopefully, it will help me appreciate it even more and make the most of the opportunities ahead."