Student-Athletes Find Joy in Careful Return to Competition


By Bria Irizarry, Assistant Director of Athletics for Sports Information // Video by Jesse Paddock

When Durham Academy’s varsity girls tennis team took to the court on Sept. 21 for a match vs. Ravenscroft, it was the first team to wear a DA uniform in more than six months. When the school went on spring break in early March — and changes that the COVID-19 pandemic would bring were not yet fully apparent — no one knew how long it would be before students and coaches would return to school and resume interscholastic sports.

Throughout last spring, DA student-athletes participated in virtual gatherings to stay connected — from sport-specific team meetings and game nights to virtual Senior Nights and end-of-year award ceremonies. What many people didn’t see was that behind the computer screens and social media posts keeping the student-athletes together was a team of athletics administrators and coaches who were determined to get them out from behind the screens and back on the fields, courts and courses.

In mid-May, Director of Athletics Andy Pogach gathered his leadership team and the athletic training staff to sift through what it would take to get student-athletes safely back on campus and participating in summer workouts.

“We watched the student-athletes communicate virtually throughout the spring, and we knew we had to do whatever was possible to get them back on campus together.”

Andy Pogach

While following guidelines from the North Carolina Independent Schools Athletic Association (NCISAA), the National Federation of High School Sports (NFHS) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Pogach and his staff sorted through the logistics of safely using DA facilities. This entailed ordering additional outdoor tents for sanitization stations, sectioning off 6-foot perimeters on practice fields to keep student-athletes socially distanced, ordering masks and cohorting student-athletes to adhere to state regulations on gathering size.

Led by head athletic trainer Meghan Fulton, the group also had to establish new safety protocols, which included daily temperature checks, symptom screening and tracking the participants of the workouts. Fulton — who is a member of the NCISAA Sports Medicine Advisory Committee and who helped create the recommended return-to-play guidelines — worked with Upper School athletic trainer Jackie Lauricella and Middle School athletic trainer Ricardo Morales-Santos to train each coach and athletics staff member on how to conduct daily health checks and the procedures associated with anyone who exhibited symptoms.

Pogach and his staff created three check-in locations on campus so that each team’s members knew where to arrive to have their temperature checked and complete the health screening, while also remaining in their cohorts and separated from other teams. Coaches were charged with keeping student-athletes in their cohorts, maintaining a log of who would be at their workouts and on what days, and following up with student-athletes if they did not attend the workout as planned to make sure they were not feeling ill.

Summer workouts began on June 22 and continued until July 31. During that time, more than 100 workouts were hosted on campus and more than 200 student-athletes participated across 10 sports.

“We impacted more student-athletes this summer than in any previous summer,” Pogach said. “It was a very overwhelming feeling, knowing that the health and safety of our student-athletes and coaches had to be at the top of our priority list. But our coaches and athletics staff really pulled together to make our summer workouts happen.”

Photo by Bob Karp

After the success of the summer, the athletics staff was hopeful that interscholastic competition could return this fall while still keeping the health and safety of student-athletes the priority.

“Once school and sports came together for a few weeks at a time and there wasn’t an uptick in cases, that’s when I felt like, OK, we can add the next layer of competition,” Fulton said.

While still following strict guidelines from the CDC and the NFHS, the fall and winter seasons began with a non-traditional introduction to play and limited, socially distanced workouts in which DA teams primarily focused on fundamental skill development and building team culture. Full team practices and interscholastic competition were introduced gradually.

Costen Irons, head cross-country coach, remained hopeful despite the ever-changing circumstances. “Going into the season, we knew all we could do was have a positive attitude and focus on the things we could control,” he said. “We were going to enjoy running and getting better if we had the opportunity to compete or not.”

Fall sports that were considered low-risk — including girls golf, girls tennis and cross-country — began interscholastic competition right away, while moderate-risk sports — field hockey, boys soccer and volleyball — participated in intrasquad scrimmages before being given the green light to face external opponents. Winter sports — basketball and swimming — followed safety protocols for screening, masking, social distancing, hygiene and equipment sanitation for practices and competitions.

“A rewarding day for me was the day that we allowed the girls volleyball team to have an intrasquad scrimmage,” Fulton said. “You could feel the energy shift in the gym. The girls went from being a bit flat to smiling and energized, and in that moment I knew we were doing the right thing.”

As each team returned to masked, interscholastic competition that eventually included limited spectators, there was an overwhelming sense of gratitude from the student-athletes. Anna Catherine Wilson, a senior on the cross-country team, said that as the summer drew to a close she was skeptical the team would have a complete season.

“After the rest of our track season was cancelled last spring, I realized how much I truly missed being around my teammates and coaches every day,” she said. “Being able to compete for DA this fall has meant a lot to me. At the end of a virtual school day, I am so grateful that I am able to go and run with my teammates outside.”

Pogach was grateful to see student-athletes competing again. 

“We have an incredible community,” he said. “From administrative staff, to coaches, to parents, to the student-athletes — we all had to work together to make this happen and I am grateful to be part of a community that will work to give our student-athletes the best possible experience.”

Senior Amelia Kass, of the girls basketball team, believes that her team has benefited from the challenges of navigating sports and COVID-19.

“I think I speak for the team when I say that every time we step onto the court, we all feel very lucky and grateful to those who have made it possible to have games in the first place,” she said. “It was clear from the very beginning that our season could end at any moment, so everyone shows up and plays like it could be their last time on the court.”

In a fall season that was not guaranteed, three Cavaliers teams — field hockey, girls tennis and volleyball — earned a spot in the state semifinals; the girls golf team earned a state runner-up finish; boys cross-country and girls cross-country placed fourth and sixth, respectively, in the state meet; and 24 Cavs were named All-Conference.

Tim McKenna, head coach of the varsity boys basketball team, tried to stress the importance of being flexible during an ever-changing season that would involve many new practice and game day protocols. “We have tried to stay focused on getting better every day and working towards a goal of becoming a complete team,” McKenna said. “There have been bumps in the road, but I am proud of these guys and how hard they have worked this season. We have remained resilient, and I think that is a life skill that will stick with them forever.”

The Cavaliers have made it halfway through the winter season with much to be proud of, despite facing daily competition cancellations and schedule changes. The varsity boys basketball team has a 6-4 record, and a pair of seniors have garnered attention for their performances on the court. In December, senior Cole Sinclair became DA boys basketball’s all-time leading scorer when he scored his 1,444th point. Classmate Toby Harris became the 10th player in DA boys basketball history to score 30 points in a single game.

The varsity girls basketball team stands 6–4 on the season and has moved to third place in the conference standings. Sophomore Mariam Abdelbarr leads the team in both points (95) and steals (27) and is second on the team in rebounds (48). Sophomore Kendall Harris is the second leading scorer (90) and leads the team in rebounds (77) and blocks (26). Eighth-grader Mackenzie Graves has 89 points on the season, leads the team in assists (20) and has 28 rebounds.

The boys swim team has competed in three meets and the girls team in four, with both teams splitting decisions in two dual meets. Their conference meet is scheduled for the end of January.

“This is why I’m here,” Pogach said. “This is why I have the job that I have — to watch the student-athletes compete, and we did that successfully.”