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Thursday January 20th

'Chance to keep playing': UNC fall sports adjust to playing in the spring

UNC redshirt junior forward Meredith Sholder (2) drives downfield in Karen Shelton Stadium Nov. 5, 2020. The Tar Heels beat the Eagles 4-0 in the first round of the ACC playoffs, securing head coach Karen Shelton’s 700th win.
Buy Photos UNC redshirt junior forward Meredith Sholder (2) drives downfield in Karen Shelton Stadium Nov. 5, 2020. The Tar Heels beat the Eagles 4-0 in the first round of the ACC playoffs, securing head coach Karen Shelton’s 700th win.

It’s abnormal for college sports to have both a fall and spring season, but with the COVID-19 pandemic, having any sort of normality is rare.

As a result, four UNC sports — men’s and women’s soccer, field hockey and volleyball — are playing both a fall and spring season.

“It’s historic,” field hockey head coach Karen Shelton said about playing two seasons in one year.

The move means being able to play more competitive games in the period of a year and staying in game shape, instead of just playing in the fall and practicing the rest of the year. Shelton said she likes this model more and thinks it’s better for all parties involved.

“If we could change the model, this is actually a healthier way to do it,” Shelton said. "It’s more fun for the athletes and it’s healthier for Olympic development.”

Following a win against Louisville on March 5, junior field hockey forward Erin Matson said playing competitive games in the spring allows teams to continue to improve their chemistry against high-level opponents.

“We learned a lot in the fall, and we worked through a lot of challenges,” Matson said. “Now we can focus a little more on field hockey and how the team looks and how we’re bonding and working together. It’ll be fun, and everyone’s in a really great mood just because it’s different that we get another season.”

Despite the benefits, playing both a fall and spring season and then turning around to prepare for another campaign in the ensuing fall is a grueling task most college athletes haven’t done since high school.

“It’s a long season, it’s year-round, which on one hand is really good,” junior men’s soccer goalkeeper Alec Smir said. “At the same time, though, it’s a lot. It keeps going in a way, so it’s hard to stay motivated like you are in a single semester.”

The men's soccer team's fall season ended earlier than it had hoped when UNC lost in the quarterfinals of the ACC Tournament to Notre Dame. In the players' eyes, the spring season will allow them to get that losing taste out of their mouths sooner than if they were only playing a fall season.

“After we lost, we were all in the locker room saying, ‘Hey, we have another season. We gotta get ready and we’ll have the chance to play them again soon,’” Smir said. “I think it’s exciting that we get this chance to keep playing. Usually at the end of that first semester when it ends, it’s all sad and tears for the seniors, but this time, we get another go at it.”

Losing players is something that women’s soccer head coach Anson Dorrance knows well. Just after the fall season, three of his players — Emily Fox, Brianna Pinto and Taylor Otto — were drafted into the National Women’s Soccer League. Fox and Otto decided to go straight to the NWSL and skip the spring season, but Pinto didn’t. As a result of having a spring season, Dorrance gets to have Pinto on his team one last time before she joins her former teammates and becomes a professional.

Though the abnormal year of competition has presented benefits, dealing with COVID-19 safety protocols has presented lulls and challenges for some teams. 

The volleyball team completed the fall season with a 6-2 record and began the spring season 2-2, including a 1-1 mark in ACC play, but its last two matches against Boston College and Georgia Tech have been postponed due to a positive COVID-19 test within a recent opponent’s program and subsequent contact tracing protocols. 

Despite postponements, having both fall and spring seasons amid the pandemic has allowed for coaches and athletes to remain competitive throughout the year. 

“You make both seasons meaningful instead of having a three-month, four-month competitive season and then practicing for half the year," Shelton said. 

@noahmnroe

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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