In 2020, Duncan Grimes didn’t play organized basketball for the first time in years — and he felt it.
After a playing career at Cardinal Gibbons High School in Raleigh, Grimes joined the UNC Men's Club Basketball team, keeping his game days alive. But when the pandemic sent students home in the spring of 2020, Grimes realized he might go his entire junior year without hardwood hooping.
His worst fears were confirmed when, for most of the 2020-21 academic year, UNC’s club and intramural sports were moved online.
“It was brutal, honestly,” Grimes, now a senior, said. “I love basketball, I’ve played it my whole life. It just sucked to not have that kind of outlet.”
But as the year went on, things slowly began improving. At the tail end of last semester, Grimes and the club basketball team got to have distanced, limited capacity practices. And over the summer, outdoor intramural sports like sand volleyball were opened up.
This year, campus athletics are planning to return to normal operations, with club and intramural sports set to take place almost entirely in person.
Campus Rec has two different plans drawn up for this fall, according to Justin Ford, the assistant director of sport programs. Plan A sees mostly in-person activities with a smaller list of virtual offerings, and Plan B includes mostly virtual programming should coronavirus delta variant cases surge on campus.
Campus Rec team members emphasized that their plans focus on keeping students safe.
“The majority of (intramurals and club sports) are going to be in person,” said Tori Hooker, the senior assistant director of sport programs at UNC Campus Rec. “But we are going to have a handful of opportunities that will be virtual so that people can participate wherever they feel comfortable.”
When intramural sports first went virtual in fall 2020, Hooker and her team saw success and high attendance with new online offerings like UNC Rocket League Club. But when there was the odd in-person event — innertube foosball or a socially-distanced cornhole tournament — the turnout was huge.
Campus Rec also realized that, after a while, some virtual offerings couldn’t hold long-term appeal, as students continued to feel the effects of Zoom fatigue and burnout.
“We did a paint night every other Wednesday, where (Hooker) would get on Zoom and do a painting class,” Ford said. “It first started out with 15 students, but then trickled down to only three or four students who had their screens off.”
The summer brought positive changes, though. Some outdoor sports activities kicked off, and with vaccine rates increasing, Campus Rec followed in the University’s footsteps and prepared for an almost entirely in-person semester.
With the advent of the delta variant, there will still be safety precautions in place, with masks being required at all indoor events and any outdoor events where people will be in close proximity. There will also be weekly testing requirements and symptom reporting for unvaccinated students.
Some intramural sports have participation limits, such as 7-on-7 flag football and 5-on-5 basketball being reduced to their 5-on-5 and 3-on-3 counterparts, respectively.
“It’s hard to believe that we went through a whole academic year last year and that we're starting another academic year that's also being affected,” Hooker said. “But it's just really trying to stay on top of ways that we can offer opportunities to people and making sure that it's the safest way possible.”
With vaccines not yet ubiquitous and the delta variant causing breakthrough cases, things could change in the future. But for now, club sports and intramurals will be back.
For Grimes, now a captain on the club basketball team, it means he gets to return to the hardwood courts and travel tournaments he loves. Ask him if he’s excited.
“Very,” Grimes said. “It’s been a long time coming, so I’m very excited for this season to get going.”
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