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Pandemic not only ended college seasons, but individual careers for some

Menacing storm clouds settled over the sports world in mid-March and still haven't left.

The forecast remains tricky in college athletics due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The impact hit home in New London at Coast Guard Academy, Connecticut College and Mitchell College.

First, the winter championship season was cut short, and the spring season abruptly ended after a only handful of games.

Then hope for a fall season gradually disappeared, the cancellation adding to the heartbreak and disappointment felt by athletic directors, student-athletes and coaches.

"It's a year like no other," Coast Guard athletic director Dan Rose said.

And it's a year that's been especially challenging for senior athletes, many that never got a chance to play their final season or celebrate their careers on Senior Day.

Take Conn College track and field standout Koko Mensah.

Mensah, a senior, was preparing to compete in the NCAA Division III Indoor Track and Field Championships in Winston-Salem, N.C., in mid-March when the NCAA canceled the competition due to the pandemic outbreak. As the third seed, she had a great opportunity to challenge for a national title in the shot put and earn All-American honors.

On top of that devastating news, the New England Small College Athletic Conference had already called off its spring season.

Just like that, Mensah's career was over.

"It was very overwhelming at first, really upsetting," women's track coach Ned Bishop said in March. "Then realizing that none of this was directed at anybody in particular and it's a much bigger issue that everybody was having to deal with."

Throughout the spring, coaches stayed connected with their teams, running Zoom meetings and holding virtual workouts while student-athletes attended school remotely.

But they all badly missed the regular interaction and daily grind.

"As a coach, you don't realize how much you enjoy the struggle — win or lose — and the ramp-up, the planning, the emotion and the passion that you're going to pour into that struggle," CGA men's lacrosse coach Ray LaForte said at the time. "And now there's no struggle."

Summer brought optimism that the fall season could be salvaged.

Athletic directors put together game plans for a variety of scenarios with safety guidelines and protocols in mind. They remained hopeful but also realistic.

The news, however, continued to be bleak and the fall competitive season was lost as well.

Mitchell, Conn and Coast Guard quickly shifted focus to finding a way to give athletes a positive experience despite the circumstances.

Teams are practicing this fall, working out in small groups and with players wearing masks.

"Obviously, it's different from what it normally would be but we're embracing it," Mitchell women's soccer coach Marc Davis said. "The girls are pretty happy. We're getting creative with the sessions and they're working hard. So far, so good."

Coast Guard also is taking a creative approach, designating two hours, six days a week as an athletic period. Fall teams work out about three days a week while two days — Wednesdays and Saturdays — are reserved for fun competition in nine different sports for the entire corps.

"An athletic team, as you would imagine, that's one of the biggest mental health breaks you can have at a military academy," Rose said. "Being with your teammates, being with those people you're so close with, those are some of the tightest bonds. But we also don't want to take a step back to our peers at other schools. I talked to my (New England Women's and Men's Athletic Conference) colleagues, they're doing the same thing on average three days a week.

"So we felt that we didn't lose anything there but we added this competitive element by putting in this competition."

What the future holds is as difficult to predict as the New England weather. The winter season is next in the crosshairs. The forecast is optimistic, though, with odds favoring a later start, most likely before the second semester begins in January.

There's a chance that fall sports teams could play games in the spring. The NCAA already has determined that there won't be any fall championships.

"For most colleges in America, they just want to provide something for their student-athletes," Rose said. "This year, it's probably not about the national championships the way things are going. To be able to roll out your seniors and acknowledge them on some type of a senior day, that would be a big deal."

g.keefe@theday.com

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