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JMU defender Lilly Boswell catches the ball against George Mason on March 3, 2021.

College athletes wear many hats, juggling rigorous training schedules while being full-time students. COVID-19 added more hats — such as social distancing protocols, weekly testing and a constantly changing schedule — that can make it difficult for athletes to balance it all without their mental health suffering.

JMU lacrosse had a successful preseason with no major hiccups, but its first two games of the season were canceled and postponed. Redshirt senior defender Emma Johnson said those cancelations were a reality check for the team and made them shift their perspective going forward. 

“When we have those cancellations, it’s hard sometimes for us to kind of refocus back into our practice every single day,” Johnson said. “There’s so many things we take on every day, and I think that a lot of people look forward to games as just … a mental break from everything.”

Redshirt sophomore defender Mairead Durkin said she and her team were angry about the canceled and postponed games after they’d been so careful. She added that it’s draining to deal with so many changes.

“It takes a lot out of you, just playing sports in college,” Durkin said. “Add a pandemic and all these new rules and it’s just like, life is so weird, I don’t even know how to act.”

Typically, schedules are planned out at least a year in advance. The pandemic complicated that, leaving Durkin and Johnson with an incomplete schedule after the season had started. 

Johnson returned for another season, thanks to the NCAA granting winter and spring senior athletes an extra year of eligibility last year. Because it’s her last season, she said the scheduling uncertainties are especially stressful.

“I knew that this year was going to be the end, so I do have a timeline of when my time as a JMU Duke is going to end,” Johnson said. “However, I don’t know when that last time my jersey is going to be put on [will be], and to me it’s scary to think about because there’s no definite answer to that.”

Lacrosse head coach Shelley Klaes is a JMU lacrosse alumna who’s spent time in the uniform. She said she’s doing her best to help with the stress and anxiety created from an abnormal season but added that it’s difficult to manage uncontrollable setbacks such as scheduling.

“Mentally, it can be exhausting because you’re literally on a rollercoaster ride,” Klaes said. “I’ve never been in so many conversations where people are just devastated and crying. It’s just really cruel what these girls go through.”

Despite dedicating many hours a week to their sport, athletes are still students and must balance both responsibilities. Athletes work with professors at the beginning of the semester, letting them know when they have to miss a class due to games. Durkin said not having a complete schedule when classes started created challenges for some of her teammates.

“Professors would not be open to having someone retake a test because at the last minute, [there was a game],” Durkin said. “I don’t think they realize it’s caused us a lot of stress, too. It’s not our fault.”

The process of finding out a game has been postponed or canceled can vary for each team. Klaes and baseball head coach Marlin Ikenberry both feel that communication with the team is an important first step. 

“Once we find out that it’s been postponed, we get on a Zoom call with the team,” Ikenberry said. “One of the things we’ve talked about since day one is adversity and how we handle it — the teams that have been the most successful are the ones that can handle the adversity.”

Ikenberry said his main focus is keeping his team focused on the bigger picture because “nothing is normal.” He credits a love for the sport for helping everyone keep their heads up and do what it takes to get on the field.

“I just tell them to control what they can control and just take the punches when they hit you and keep standing up,” Ikenberry said. “Even though we’re not together at times and we have to shut down and things like that, we’re still working and still practicing. I think the love for each other and the love for the game is keeping them in check.”

Like Johnson, redshirt junior catcher Michael Morgan said it’s hard dealing with canceled and postponed games knowing his time as a Duke is coming to an end. He said dealing with the anxiety caused by that can be stressful, and he’s had different feelings this year compared to previous years.

“You just have to find something [positive] to think about and just do the things that you can control,” Morgan said. “It’s really just going to go downhill if you’re [constantly] thinking about all the suspense that goes into it.”

Redshirt junior pitcher Anthony Piccolino said that despite all of the challenges his team has faced, including seven canceled games and three postponed games, he and his teammates have managed to stay in good spirits by remaining optimistic for the future.

“A lot of it is trying to keep everybody positive and … just keep moving forward and doing everything we need to do,” Piccolino said. “At some point, we are going to get back on the field, and we need to be ready for that.”

For JMU lacrosse, part of being ready to play includes being ready to step into a new position if teammates are quarantined. Durkin said there was a time when both of the goalies were in quarantine, and her teammate had to practice goaltending in case she was put in the net during a game.

“You just have to fill up all these holes that you’ve never been put in before,” Durkin said. “Everyone has to be ready to play any position, which has just never been a thing before.”

Athletes and coaches do their best to stay positive and lean on each other for support. However, all the support in the world doesn’t change how stressful it is being an athlete during a pandemic, Durkin said. 

“It’s just so much put on you,” Durkin said. “There’s just so much more responsibilities and … it’s just so draining mentally.”

Lacrosse’s game against Towson on April 18 honored and brought awareness to mental health within athletics. Morgan’s Message is a non-profit organization in honor of Morgan Rodgers — a former Duke University women’s lacrosse player who committed suicide in 2019 — raising awareness and erasing the stigma surrounding athletes’ mental health. Rodgers’ parents, Kurt and Dona, attended the game and were honorary team captains for the Dukes as they “took a shot at mental health.”

COVID-19 added what may be one  of  the biggest challenges JMU athletes have had to overcome so far, taking a toll on players’ mental health as they try to fight through it on and off the field.

Contact Courtney Ryder ryderce@dukes.jmu.edu. For more coverage, follow the sports desk on on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.