The Ivy League made the right decision for its institutions.
Students weren’t attending school on campuses, and athletics weren’t a priority during the pandemic. So they opted out of every sport — the most notable being men’s and women’s college basketball.
The league had made an abrupt decision to cancel its March 2020 postseason tournament. The initial call drew outrage and there were certainly some coaches in the league who privately were furious.
But the decision to be the first one to pull the plug proved to be the prophetic one.
Although, the cancellation of the entire 2020-21 season came with a few consequences.
Cornell lost its entire senior class to other Division I schools. Yale lost its top player and maybe the best in the league in Paul Atkinson to Notre Dame.
But the consequences were more than just the loss of players to the transfer portal. Ivy League teams were unable to participate in the sport they love and have a team represent the conference in March Madness.
“The most challenging aspect of not playing last season was not being together as a team,’’ said Harvard coach Tommy Amaker. “As a result of Harvard’s COVID policies and protocols, many of our players did not set foot on campus all last year. I saw one of our seniors in person this fall for the first time in 17 months. This is a guy that I had been accustomed to having intimate conversations with in person each day. Though we did a variety of activities to keep our group connected and engaged throughout the ’20-’21 academic year, there is no way to replicate the joy of the daily interactions in the locker room, the time spent together in the dorm, traveling to road games, etc. So, as much as our guys missed not being able to play, I think they missed each other even more.’’
Isolation was the trigger for players who had to deal with contact tracing. But the feeling of being left out and alone was prevalent for Ivy League players too.
“Last season was very difficult,’’ said Penn’s Steve Donahue. “The hardest part was watching games start and not being able to play.’’
The demeanor has completely shifted for all stakeholders in the Ivy game over the summer and now into the early fall.
“I’ve never seen a more focused group of athletes looking to play,’’ said Donahue. “We’re all excited about what it’s going to be like to finally play again.’’
Excitement isn’t the only emotion. Appreciation and gratitude are invading the players’ space, as well.
“Sometimes when you are lost in the day-to-day of the season, you take the little things for granted: team meals, playing one-on-one after practice,’’ said Amaker. “We have always coached and taught our players to have an attitude of gratitude, but in light of the challenges we have all faced since this pandemic began, I think that has taken on even greater significance.’’
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Amaker said maturity in which his players handled the adversity will only make them stronger.
That common thread — of embracing a new opportunity to play again — has led to euphoria in the little things. Joyful expressions seem to be the norm. Giddy was the word Yale coach James Jones used to describe their overriding emotion.
The league race will be tight with as many as 6 of the 8 legitimately in contention for the league title, although Amaker said he could see all eight in the race. The chase for the four spots in the Ivy League playoff may be as intense as ever.
And that would be fitting after every team took a one-year hiatus.
As Donahue said, “Everybody feels excited about their chances.’’
That’s all they wanted. A chance. An opportunity to play again.
The Ivy League brand is back. And the sport is always better when the tradition-rich names are in contention for an NCAA tournament berth.