If Creighton goalkeeper Paul Kruse didn’t get to laugh with the guys inside the locker room before or after a practice, he would have one of those moments on a weekend road trip.
Or maybe they’d meet at a restaurant. Or the movie theater. Or just kick it in a teammate's dorm room.
That’s how it used to be. Pre-pandemic.
But this fall, at least for the first several weeks since the semester began, Kruse and the Bluejays weren’t able to experience any of that as a full team.
Fall sports competitions were canceled in August due to the pandemic. Creighton also instituted campus restrictions to limit the risk of exposure to the coronavirus, and those policies filtered to Creighton athletics. No practices, no locker room access, no team dinners.
The Jays have had to adjust.
“This bubble we have going on at Creighton, where we not only protect our team but the entire Creighton community — that is the most important to us,” Kruse said. “So we try to make the best of the situation. We try to be creative and come up with new solutions to help the team grow.”
They all still crave that sense of camaraderie, even if their interactions are limited for safety reasons.
Creighton’s COVID-19 rules do appear to be working. The school reported a 2.1% positivity rate at its campus testing center during the first two weeks of September, according to its online dashboard. Data for the rest of the month hasn’t been made available.
Just this past week, the Bluejays were able to progress in their return-to-campus acclimation process.
Players are still wearing masks. But instead of conducting small-group sessions, full-team workouts were allowed — with limitations on high-contact drills.
Coach Greg McDermott tweeted a photo last Monday of his squad on the court together for the first time since March. The baseball team scrimmaged inside TD Ameritrade Park on Saturday. Other teams had workouts these past few days, as well.
It’s hardly normal, though. Volleyball, soccer and cross country would traditionally be well into their seasons by this point. Preseason practice would have started for basketball.
That’s why Creighton coaches and administrators are doing all they can to check in with their athletes, and keep tabs on their well-being.
“Their mental health, it’s really important to talk about,” volleyball coach Kirsten Bernthal Booth said. “And I think it’s the challenge in general for college students. What is OK socialization? They’re being told a lot of nos, but what are the yeses? Because they need some socialization.”
In the summer, Booth’s team went as far as setting up “connection buddies.” They split into groups of three — and called one another to check in.
Sometimes the conversations were fun and jovial. Sometimes they got a little emotional.
“We lean on each other,” senior Grace Nelson said. “It’s about just being open and not fearing to be seen as weak. We’ve really tried to break down that stigma.”
They’ve done their best to focus on the reasons for optimism.
The NCAA announced plans to move its fall sports to spring. The volleyball season is set to start in January. Same for cross country. Soccer will begin play in February.
The volleyball team returns four of its top five kills leaders from a squad that won the Big East regular-season title for the sixth straight year.
“We’ve all been pretty positive,” Nelson said. “I think we’re more just thankful that we’re back to campus, and able to work out together again.”
Kruse and his teammates have a whole system set up to earn competition points for those who perform best at drills and workouts. Without game prep, they can focus on technique and skillwork. Kruse is meeting twice a week with his goalkeeper coach, on top of regular weight training and team on-field sessions.
The squad once met for a Sunday kickball game at Morrison Stadium. They have also spaced themselves on the turf and jammed to music on the PA system.
They can envision the day when the stands are full again. That’s not too far off, Kruse said.
For now, they just have to keep pressing forward, together.
“It’s definitely been different than the first two seasons I’ve been here, obviously,” Kruse said. “But we’ve adjusted. That’s the special thing about our team. Everybody cares, and everybody looks out for each other.”
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