At approximately 7:30 a.m. on Sept. 1 in nearby Forest Park, the Bears returned to competition after an unprecedented break brought on by COVID-19. Our Bears. The scholar-champions who run, kick, sprint, spike, serve, drive, block, tackle, throw, catch — all as a side hustle to their real job of being students at Washington University in St. Louis.
And in that early-morning hour on the first September day of the 2021–22 academic year, the women’s and men’s cross-country team, at the time nationally ranked No. 2 and No. 5, respectively, lined up near the bottom of Art Hill in a dual meet against Greenville College and began WashU’s joyful run into the 2021 fall sports season. It was the first organized competition for Division III fall sports since the fall of 2019, before anyone had heard of the virus that caused COVID-19.
The weather was overcast and drizzly, but it didn’t dampen the spirits of Head Coach Jeff Stiles, who also serves as head coach of the track and field program. “Perfect weather for running,” Stiles says.
“It’s kind of like Christmas when my parents would buy me a present,” Stiles says. “I wouldn’t know what was inside of it, but I knew it was going to be good. That’s what this season is going to be like … I know it’s going to be good, and it’s my hope that we’ll just really enjoy the whole unwrapping process.”
Though many of the WashU runners competed in track in the spring of 2021 and in virtual meets in fall 2020 running against themselves, it was their first in-person cross country competition since 2019. “Our runners had the best and worst of it, missing three seasons,” says Stiles, noting that the track team missed its spring 2020 season at the outbreak of the pandemic. “But this feels right. It feels good to be out here.”
Competing in front of fans, too. About 40 hearty souls were in Forest Park cheering the team on to the win Sept. 1. And Stiles was pumped.
Turning the lights on
Later that day, the lights went up at the WashU Field House for the first time this fall when the volleyball team hosted neighboring Fontbonne University. Michaela Bach, a senior majoring in philosophy-neuroscience-psychology in Arts & Sciences, led the team to a 3-0 victory with 14 kills — those crowd-pleasing, momentum-creating exclamation marks into the opposing team’s court that really get things going. Even if she didn’t show it, she admitted to pregame butterflies.
“I think I was the most nervous I’d been before a game in my career here,” Bach says. “It did feel weird to be out there since it had been two years since we played a match. But I think more than anything, I was grateful to be able to compete.”
Bach admits it was tough when the 2020 season was canceled — on top of the academic challenges the pandemic wrought. “I was especially down a year ago,” she says. “But we all just had to look at the positives of the situation and know that we could at least still practice. And we knew we had something to work toward in 2021.”
Eventually the team was able to practice in small groups — with masks. “I’m so used to wearing one by now, I sometimes forget it’s even there,” she says.
For Bach, who grew up in St. Louis and had dreamed of putting on a WashU uniform, the season is bittersweet. “My elementary school is practically across the street, so I’ve been coming to games in this place for as long as I can remember,” she says. “So, this season was always going to be emotional for me because I’ve always dreamed of this. Getting to fulfill that dream is way beyond words.”
Picking each other up
Three days later, on Sept. 4, the women’s soccer team traveled a few miles west for their first game at Fontbonne’s Centene Stadium, securing a 3-1 victory over the Griffins. Sophomore Jess Greven, a biochemistry major from Carmel, Indiana, had two goals in the game — and the first two goals of her career.
It was a long time coming. Greven admits last year was tough coming in as a first-year student and not having a season to play for the first time in her life. “It was devastating when the season was canceled,” she says. “I didn’t know anyone besides a few teammates I had briefly met on my visit. And the one thing that I had always been able to count on my whole life, soccer, wasn’t there. It was no one’s fault. It’s just the way it was.”
But the team picked her up, assigning mentors for the young players and making sure no one was overlooked. “From week one, our coach was there, and our team was there. They made sure they did everything they possibly could do for first-years to make us feel at home.”
By late September in 2020, the team was able to practice outside in small groups of eight, a bit awkward at first executing drills with players she had never met before outside of Zoom meetings. “It didn’t take long, though, to get into a groove,” Greven says.
And slowly, steadily, she built up a comfort zone with both soccer and WashU, and was eager to play that first game last month.
“It was a thrill to run out on that field wearing the uniform,” Greven says. “Every athlete looks forward to playing in college. And this was something that I’ve been looking forward to since I was a little kid, to finally put that jersey on and get on the field with 30 of my best friends. There’s no better feeling.”
Sept. 4 was her 20th birthday, too. “Quite a convergence of events,” she says, laughing. “We’d been working for a year and a half to get to this game, but we’ll keep moving on and improving from here.”
And so has the sports season, with teams rolling out one by one.
“There were numerous passionate and committed partners assisting in our effort to return to competition safely,” says Anthony J. Azama, associate vice chancellor for student affairs and the John M. Schael Director of Athletics. “The hard work is rewarding when you see the student-athletes’ enjoyment, determination and teamwork on game day.”
In other sports, the men’s soccer team earned a 3-0 victory over Illinois Wesleyan in its first game Sept. 1. The golf team won the 2021 IWU Fall Classic Sept. 18. Swimming and diving competed in its first meet Sept. 24, and men’s tennis hosted a tournament at the Tao Tennis Center Sept. 25. The west end of campus is vibrant and active again, and it all feels …
“Brand new!” says Andrew Whitaker, a football team captain and fifth-year player working on his master’s degree in biomedical theory and taking advantage of his additional year of eligibility. And on Saturday, Sept. 18, it felt like autumn again on the Danforth Campus with a home football game in a late-afternoon start, which meant a sun-kissed field and a deep blue sky encircling Francis Olympic Stadium.
“You get that uniform on, and you’re like, It’s go time!’ Whitaker says. “It was great to be in a real game in front of fans, friends and family. Sure, I had pregame butterflies, but as soon as those first few snaps go by, you’re locked in.”
The game was also the first as head coach for Aaron Keen, who had both played on Francis Field as a student from 1990–93, then coached as an assistant until 2002. He was hired to replace longtime coach Larry Kindbom in January 2020 and had waited nearly 20 months to put on the headset. And the Bears didn’t disappoint, defeating North Park University 41-7, and garnering Keen an ice bath after his first win.
“Coach Keen is pretty stoic. But I know he felt good about that first win, and we were glad to get it for him,” Whitaker says. “But now it’s onto the next one. Yeah, it was a good victory, but let’s keep going. We have to keep it rolling.”
Rolling along. It’s a brand new season, but it’s back to business, as usual, for the WashU Bears.