The pandemic has brought some unique silver linings to student-athletes at Lafayette and around the country.
In a rare move, the NCAA expanded eligibility to all fall and winter sports during the 2020-21 season. This follows a similar decision by the organization in March of last year as COVID-19 took hold.
Student-athletes have traditionally been given five years to play four seasons of their sport, allowing for some to take redshirt years due to medical reasons or lack of opportunity as freshmen. Now, athletes will have an additional year of competition to play with as they consider their athletic and academic futures.
More than a few Lafayette athletes are taking advantage of the opportunity.
The men’s soccer program will return two key contributors from this spring’s team, which went undefeated in the regular season before losing in the conference championship to American two weeks ago. Forward Martin Ssessanga and defender Andrew Venezia, who each started every game this spring, will return to a potent starting lineup that led the Patriot League in shots, goals and points.
“Our entire starting lineup will be back, and then quite a few of our younger guys committed to coming back in ’22 and ’23 and beyond, using their extra year of eligibility at Lafayette,” said head coach Dennis Bohn. “We’re very excited about next fall and beyond.”
The extra year also allows some athletes to take their talents elsewhere, as senior basketball guard E.J. Stephens has elected to do. In February, Stephens became the 47th player in Lafayette history to score 1,000 career points, after steadily improving in each of his four seasons in nearly every statistical category.
One of the driving forces behind his decision to leave was Lafayette’s lack of a postgrad program, so Stephens is headed to the University of Minnesota to pursue his master’s degree in, fittingly, sports management.
“Being able to go work on my master’s, if not complete it, for free was an opportunity I really couldn’t pass on,” Stephens said. “Obviously, I’m going to miss it here…but I definitely want to take advantage of that.”
Some student-athletes have used the extra year to work jobs or internships while taking a reduced course load at the college. Other student-athletes have even found an additional silver lining to the extra year of school: the ability to tack on a minor or major to their course of study.
Cece Lesnick of the women’s tennis team did both: She worked an internship in the fall and only took one class at the college, and spread out her remaining credits over the current semester and the upcoming new academic year. With the added flexibility in her schedule, Lesnick was able to finish a studio art minor that she wouldn’t have completed otherwise.
“I just made the decision with my parents that online classes weren’t the best learning opportunity, [and] that it wasn’t the best opportunity to enjoy college,” Lesnick said. “Not only do I get an extra year of tennis, but a better in-person education too.”
Ssessanga, too, is adding a minor in history and plans to graduate in fall 2021 after the men’s soccer season is finished.
“I did take some extra classes…I’m now a history minor…it’s like a little perk,” he said.
Overall, the response to the extra eligibility has been largely positive in the Lafayette sports realm. Head football coach John Garrett said the decision showed “empathy” by the NCAA towards athletes who have missed playing the sports they love.
“First of all, I think it was the right thing to do by the NCAA to grant this extra year of eligibility, and all the schools were on board,” said head football coach John Garrett. “I think it’s great for the student-athletes and for college sports that they did that.”
Garrett noted the variety of different individual outcomes that are a product of the extra year. Some seniors want to graduate and move on, some want to graduate and play elsewhere and some want to return. Garrett said the football program, which has 14 seniors, has “run the whole gamut” of possible outcomes.
“We will have a few guys coming back for the fall…others chose a different route to graduate and get on with their lives and start their careers outside of football, and also those that want to pursue grad school and still have a desire to play, where we’re helping them do that as well,” Garrett said.
The field hockey team is also anticipating some seniors back next fall, as the team looks to rebound from a subpar spring season. Head coach Jennifer Stone would love to see some of the team’s current seniors, like offensive star Audrey Sawers, back in the Maroon and White.
“We’re hopeful things are looking that way, but not exactly confirmed yet,” Stone said. “There are a couple that we’ve had conversations with, and I hope that we’ll see a couple of them extend their careers here at Lafayette.”
As for Sawers, she’s not quite sure yet what the future holds but knows she wouldn’t want to go anywhere if she did use her extra year.
“I definitely considered the opportunity just because you can only really be an NCAA athlete once, and just for the love of the sport and wanting to still compete at a high level,” Sawers said. “I never considered it at another school. It’d be cool to see other teams, but all the work has been done here at Lafayette and it would be a finishing-something-that-you-started kind of thing.”
Sawers isn’t alone in the desire to finish what she started. Ssessanga described the painstaking process of building a team and a culture for success, and the immense impact that returning players can have on a program, especially one that’s ready to win.
“I just feel very confident and hoping to make a run at the championship and hopefully bring it back home,” Ssessanga said. “I just feel like business is unfinished.”
Sports Editor Caroline McParland ’23 contributed reporting.