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For the love of the sport

Smithfield resident perseveres in softball

In less than a week, the coronavirus threw a no-hitter against Christopher Newport University softball.

The team was in Arizona in early March for a national invitational tournament when things started getting tense, said senior Patty Maye Ohanian. Games were being canceled and everything seemed up in the air.

When the team flew back to Virginia, “everything’s fine on Monday. On Tuesday, some things (were) canceled. Wednesday, I think our conference canceled but we were still going to play and by Friday we had to move out of our dorms and everything was over,” she said.

When the virus pandemic emerged, “It was weird, because when it first happened, I felt like maybe this is kind of nice. We’ll get a two-week break and then we’ll come back, because you’re exhausted in the middle of the season. But then it took about maybe a month and I was like ‘Wow, I’m really not going to have a junior season.’ It kind of was a delayed reaction for me.”

“Originally CNU told us we were going to try and come back April 12 and then that’s when everyone thought that it would be like two weeks long and it would go away,” she continued. “And then towards April, we got an email that said we’re not coming back at all for this spring. I still had my belongings in my dorm. I didn’t even pack up all my stuff.”

Ohanian, who grew up in Northern Virginia but now resides in Smithfield, said the shutdown experience has been traumatic and frustrating for many college student athletes. As president of the school’s Student Athlete Advisory Committee, she plays a leading role in advocating for student athletes and shaping their experience at CNU.

“I’m not around my friends, I’m not around my coaches, I’m not at my school. And I’m super involved in CNU,” she said. “I love our administration and staff and my teammates and friends and it was like everything was taken away from me all at once — not even just softball; school, friends, coaches, where I lived — everything was taken away. It was hard.”

Teammate and friend Bailey Roberts agreed. Over the summer, she and Ohanian sometimes got together as a duo to practice on-the-field skills. “It has definitely taken a different road for us, as far as athletics, not being able to practice as a team for a little while,” said Roberts, who is a CNU junior from Chesapeake.

In the early weeks of the pandemic, Roberts said she and Ohanian tried to mentally prepare the team for what they saw on the horizon. “We were trying to let everybody else on the team (know), get them in the mindset that our season will be canceled, there’s nothing we can do about it because this clearly isn’t going away.”

CNU has a plan to get athletes back in action.

“Our athletic department has done a really good job of trying to put us through a system where we can ease our way back into it but unfortunately that does take a few months, and then by the time we are able to practice as a team, we go on winter break, so that part kind of stinks,” Roberts said. “But I do think the precautions they’re taking and the way they have us set up into groups, we can still practice and be somewhat of a team.”

Ohanian explained how it’s supposed to work: By late September, physicals and health screenings are planned. By early October, small group strength and conditioning — outdoors and two days a week — is supposed to begin. After that, they’ll move to small group softball practices outside, also twice a week, then finally, full team practice. Everything will be done with health and social distancing protocols in place to every extent possible.

CNU, Ohanian said, has been clear that not following the rules could mean “the end of our entire fall.” Still, the opportunity to inch back toward a new normal is positive.

As an economics major, the economics of sports is often on Ohanian’s mind. As leagues, associations and conferences from little leagues to the pros scrambled to start playing again, she acknowledged it’s frustrating that sometimes all but the big three sports — football, baseball and basketball — get left out of the conversation.

“I love all sports and I’m a big football fan, but I did think it was funny how no one ever talked about playing spring sports in the fall,” she said. “And I think a lot of that is because football is in the fall, and everyone cares about college football, and so everyone wanted to find a way to play football in the spring. … So that’s something that’s really stuck out to me, a little bit of a source of frustration.”

“I think our problem now is, as far as the student athletes, it’s how do we make athletes still feel like they’re part of a community, because we’re not being paid to play here,” Ohanian said. “We don’t get scholarships. We do this because we love our sports.”