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Extra, extra! Student-athletes grapple with unexpected year of eligibility

Guillian Paguila / Thresher

By Reed Myers     9/27/22 11:34pm

News of the COVID-19 outbreak is a flashbulb memory for many people who can recount the exact moment they first heard the news. For senior infielder Benjamin Rosengard, he was incredibly saddened when he first heard the news that the outbreak had canceled his sophomore baseball season at the University of Chicago. 

“At practice, we heard some rumors that our season was maybe going to be canceled; so it was a very emotional practice, especially for our seniors,” Rosengard said. “We were all called in, and [our athletic director] delivered the news, and it was just instant tears from nearly everyone. I’ll never forget that and that feeling of having the rug pulled right from underneath you.” 

In a matter of hours, the NCAA canceled championship tournaments and entire seasons because of the COVID-19 pandemic in March of 2020. It took months before games got back up and running, and while football was able to play on a relatively normal schedule that fall, other seasons — like soccer — were delayed until spring 2021.  

Because of the postponement and cancellation of games and seasons, the NCAA decided to give collegiate athletes who played a spring sport during the 2020 season or a fall or winter sport during the 2020-2021 school year an extra year of eligibility. Given an unexpected opportunity to play another year, athletes like graduate student forward Alexis Stover were now faced with a decision to make. 

“I actually had no intentions of playing basketball again,” Stover said. “I was going to go the graduate assistant route at a different college. So it was hard … when I was trying to decide whether I was going to go to Rice or be a graduate assistant somewhere else, but I made that decision because I wasn’t ready to hang up the shoes yet.” 

The NCAA said that the extra year of eligibility was to provide opportunities for student-athletes impacted by the pandemic. But it also caused a logjam for athletes like Rosengard, who were in the transfer portal trying to find a new home during the pandemic.

“It was very difficult because you couldn’t visit anywhere in person, you couldn’t meet anyone in person, they couldn’t come out to watch any summer ball with COVID, so it was a very, very difficult and frustrating process,” Rosengard said. “On top of that, that was when the COVID backup started, so, for example, I talked to Rice out of the University of Chicago, and they didn’t have any roster spots or money left, because they had some fifth years coming back from COVID.” 

While some athletes decided to come back for their extra year of eligibility, plenty still chose to call it a career after their traditional senior year ended. According to former libero Elizabeth LaBue (‘22), a member of the Owls team that got knocked out of the 2020-21 NCAA volleyball tournament because of COVID-19 protocols, the time was right to enter her life’s next chapter after her senior season. 

“Wrapping up my senior year, I just got to the point where I felt content being done with the sport, which was really weird because I’ve played it my entire life,” LaBue said. “It’s kind of scary thinking that like ‘oh, you’re not going to do this again,’ but I was at the point where I had accomplished so many of the things that I wanted to do, and the thought of pursuing a life without volleyball was extremely scary, but also really exciting.”

During the decision-making process of returning for a fifth year, athletes also took into account their ability to further their education and how it would fit in with their post-graduate plans. For former swimmer Marta Cano-Minarro (‘22), this was a significant factor in her decision not to use her fifth year of eligibility.

“When we started considering it as an option in the fall, we realized it wasn’t feasible to complete an additional major or a minor in the little time I had left at Rice if I decided to stay,” Cano-Minarro said. “Therefore, I chose to use the year following graduation to work and get some good lab experience before I start applying to grad school.”

No matter the logistical headaches or life implications of sticking around for another year, for some athletes, Rosengard included, the decision boiled down to maximizing the time spent playing the sport they love. 

“​​There’s a very short period in your life where you can play the sport that you love, and so one day, if it’s at 23 or if it’s at 40, the jersey is going to come off,” Rosengard said. “The way that I’ve always looked at it is that there’s a ticking time clock that you don’t really know when it’s going to end, and so I’ve always wanted to play baseball as long as I could because I love it so much.”

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