During the first week in March, The Montclarion will be publishing content related to the two-year commemoration of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and the effect it has had on Montclair State University’s campus community #Since2020.
The electric crowds heard at Panzer Athletic Center during the New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC) tournament, the outpouring of support for the football team during homecoming last semester and the cheers from the Red Hawk Deck and MSU Soccer Park when the men’s soccer team made the NCAA Division III Tournament — back in 2020, these images could only be imagined and reminisced.
When the NJAC canceled all sports during the fall 2020 semester due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, not only did the fields and courts around campus fall silent, but players were also stripped of their shot at playing sports for a while.
In October 2020, all three division levels within the NCAA granted players an extra year of eligibility within their respective sport, regardless of whether they compete or not. But for Division III specifically, the division that Montclair State is a part of, they gave all 2020-2021 spring sports athletes the opportunity to take an extra year as well. Division I and Division II did not make this decision.
Two of these spring sport athletes just started their seasons not too long ago, each with a completely different start. For men’s lacrosse, long stick midfielder Wilson Smith is now technically a graduate student and was named into the First Team All-CSAC in his senior year. Smith spoke about day-to-day life in his fifth year compared to last year.
“It’s been a little bit different. All my classes are at night now and I am technically the oldest player on the team now,” Smith said. “Actually, everyone on the team has given me the nickname ‘Uncle Willy’ which is funny. Being older and experiencing Montclair State University [like this] means I can give the younger [players] advice on their classes and other stuff off the field, and especially on the field.”
Holding this mentorship position will be especially crucial for Smith, who went through a heartbreaking loss to Kean University in the first playoff game for the Colonial States Athletic Conference (CSAC) last season, losing 16-7 to the Cougars. Smith expressed his gratitude in regard to getting another shot with his team.
“It means a lot,” Smith said. “Last season we went [0 and 3] against Kean, twice in the regular season and in the semifinals. So, getting another chance to play them in the regular season and then a chance to play in the playoffs means a lot, especially if we can get a revenge win.”
The men’s lacrosse team may have lost their season opener to Vassar College on Feb. 22, but with Smith’s leadership for the rest of the season, they are sure to bounce back.
One spring team with no need to bounce back is Montclair State’s baseball team, led by fifth-year senior Andrew Ollwerther. Ollwerther was an honorable mention for the All-NJAC last season and notched 39 hits, along with 27 RBIs in the midst of almost every sport playing at the same time.
Ollwerther was one of the players who took the extra year of eligibility to his advantage and with a 4-1 start to the season (as of Feb. 27), his veteran presence has been key for the Red Hawks and will continue to remain important. Though Ollwerther had initially debated the idea of staying for another year, one of the programs offered at the university — which would allow him to obtain a bachelor’s and a master’s degree within five years — seemed too appealing to pass up.
“After being told about that opportunity, [I decided to] to sit down with my parents and talk to them about the possibility of it,” Ollwerther said. “Originally, my plan was not to go for a master’s degree, but then I realized [Montclair State] has a four plus one MBA program and that ended up being a home run [for me].”
All puns aside, Ollwerther seized the opportunity. But in spite of his classes being more sporadic now and having more time in his schedule, Ollwerther’s main goal remains the same: getting back to the NJAC Championship.
And, with 11 new freshmen on the team, Ollwerther’s advice has become more important than ever.
“One thing I have said is to avoid the emotional rollercoaster,” Ollwerther said. “Don’t get too high and don’t get too low. And of course: the other thing is to stay ahead in your academics. You definitely want to take care of that because if you can’t, you can’t be on the field.”
Ollwerther will be looking to keep the momentum up alongside the other baseball team members here at Montclair State, like Smith, and the other fifth-year athletes on campus, like men’s basketball guard/forward Irving Callender IV, who recently finished another great season and earned Second Team All-NJAC honors.
Although opportunities in life may be difficult to pursue under certain circumstances, these Red Hawks have shown that even the darkest clouds will always have a silver lining. The pandemic certainly altered some of the player’s paths, but in the end, it also gave them one more opportunity for glory.