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Undefeated: Big Red fights on

Exeter athletes refuse to let a lost season be a total loss.

By
Brian Muldoon
July 31, 2020

Phelps Stadium was empty, the Squamscott River still, Love Gym and Nekton Pool quiet. The global coronavirus pandemic made last spring different than any before, but Big Red student-athletes showed the same perseverance, creativity and camaraderie that is seen during any typical day on campus. 

Virtual challenges took the place of live practices, team trivia played the role of film sessions, and personal bedrooms turned into makeshift classrooms and fitness centers. Zoom meetings, group chats, TikTok and Instagram were the stomping grounds that emulated the typical entertainment found during long team dinners in D-Hall, Spikeball tournaments in the quad and team workouts in the Downer Family Fitness Center. Big Red pushed through together. 

“We met at the beginning of the term and made it a point that we [would] stay connected and stay together as much as we can,” said J.D. Jean-Jacques ’21, who will serve as a captain of the boys varsity soccer team this fall. “The team is already so close and we wanted to continue that. We held a Zoom meeting with the entire boys soccer program, encouraging teammates to stay talking with one another, motivating each other, and continuing to build the closeness that we already have as a team.” 

“We have a big, very active team group chat,” said girls varsity lacrosse player Charlotte Lisa ’21. “We also have a Zoom meeting every Wednesday, during which we all laugh a lot and catch up with each other. Each Zoom meeting is planned by a captain, and they’ve come up with really great ideas so far, whether it was a team trivia game, a baby photo challenge, or creating a highlight reel of some of last season’s best moments.”

That it is a part of our culture at Exeter; we don’t give up or throw in the towel when things get hard, we keep moving forward and pick up those around us.”

This period of social distancing has also allowed teams to create new avenues of activity and connection. The boys basketball team held alumni-led Zoom meetings where JD Slajchert ’14 talked about his book Moonflower and managing adversity, Mitchell Kirsch ’18 led a dribbling workout, and Josh Owens ’07, Dan Mavraides ’07, Greg St. Jean ’09, Harry Rafferty ’13 and Duncan Robinson ’13 joined the team to talk about their paths through collegiate and professional basketball. 

The track team split into six different teams and competed against one another to complete as many fitness challenges as they could. The girls lacrosse team ran a virtual 5K to support PEA Relay for Life and even capped their season with a virtual Zoom challenge against the Andover girls lacrosse team, where New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick surprised the teams as he introduced both groups of seniors. 

“I was taking a walk past Phelps Stadium a few weeks ago and was lamenting about the loss of the season and of course the culminating event: E/A,” said girls varsity lacrosse coach Christina Breen P’19, ’21. “Our team makes a really big deal about E/A, and have several team rituals that involve celebrating our team buddies and honoring our seniors. I wondered if there were some way to keep some of those rituals in place. 

“I reached out to Andover Coach Heidi Wall to see if she would be game and she readily agreed. We held a Zoom meeting with coaches and captains from both teams and mapped out a plan for the ‘events’ for the matchup. Coach Belichick is a family friend, and I thought if he were willing to announce the seniors for both teams that this might really bring some joy to the players who have spent the spring pretty deflated. He was so generous to do this and I think his video really made the seniors feel special, which is what we work so hard to do for them when we are together.”

Navigating the day-to-day grind and pace of Exeter proved to be challenging for student-athletes without classmates and teammates by their side. Finding motivation to stay active and push yourself while there were no games or practices on the horizon was a new test of personal focus and accountability. 

“I really miss rowing with the boys,” Justin Rigg ’22 of the boys crew team said. “On any given day, I will do one to two hours on the erg along with some sort of strength session. Erging is such a monotonous activity, and doing it together as a team feels almost ritualistic. Doing it on my own is a completely different experience, one that I would say is less enjoyable without my team. I like to move the erg around my house for a change of scenery.”

Other Exonians have leaned on teammates to help break up the cycle of individual workouts. 

“One of my favorite things that we do are Zoom workouts,” said three-sport athlete Marymegan Wright ’21. “Sometimes a couple of my teammates and I will Zoom and do a lift together, which really helps me stay motivated.”

“I have been really impressed with the resiliency of our student-athletes,” said Shaun Fishel, Exeter’s head strength and conditioning coach. “I have seen a lot of creativity when it comes to workouts. I’ve seen them use everything from their pets, younger siblings, chairs, rocks, canned goods and backpacks full of books. A common trend I see among our student-athletes is the ability to keep moving forward, even in the face of adversity. That it is a part of our culture at Exeter; we don’t give up or throw in the towel when things get hard, we keep moving forward and pick up those around us.”

On top of daily coursework and staying in game shape, this spring also led to some self-discovery and new passions for our student-athletes. Jean-Jacques says, “This time has definitely allowed me to take a step back from all of my commitments and realize myself as an individual. I’ve discovered a deeper passion for writing. I’ve always been a conversational guy — always sparking up a conversation about different topics — and that has manifested into writing for the Opinion section of The Exonian. It is fun for me, something I enjoy doing, and it’s something different than watching Netflix or playing video games.”  

Robbie Stankard ’21, who will be a basketball captain during the next academic year, began listening to podcasts: “ I love learning and hearing about other people’s perspectives and stories. I realized that different stories and opinions come out so naturally every day across the Harkness table at school, and I have found myself honestly craving that since being isolated at home.”  

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