Commentary

The pandemic impact on college soccer: the small-college perspective from Rochester's Chris Apple

Chris Apple  is heading into his 20th season this fall at the helm of perennial men's Division III playoff contender University of Rochester. The 1989 and 1991 All-American graduated cum laude in 1992 from UR and then played in Germany’s 4th division and with the Raleigh Flyers of the USISL. Following coaching stints at Harvard University, North Carolina Wesleyan College, and Notre Dame, he returned to upstate New York in 2001 to take charge of his alma mater.

As schools transition from spring closure to fall opening across the country, campus, conference and NCAA administrators have begun planning for return-to-campus and return-to-play scenarios. We talked to Apple, who offers a perspective from the Division III level.

SOCCER AMERICA: How are you doing? What's the situation like in Rochester?

CHRIS APPLE: I'm doing all right, hanging in there. The goal is to have students back on campus in the fall and maybe do a hybrid model, where the smaller classes can continue to meet and the bigger ones probably have to be online.

We've done a pretty good job of flattening the curve and social distancing in Rochester. Our rate of infection is really low and the number of serious infections that require ICU and ventilators is really low. We have a medical center and a hospital right on our campus and they’ve done a great job treating people.

SA: The California State University system canceled all fall athletics a few days ago. Do you interpret that as a sign of what’s more to come for other conferences around the nation?

CHRIS APPLE: The concern that most coaches have is when you see a big domino like that fall you worry that there's going to be more big dominoes falling. Once that starts happening, we most likely won't have a season. Right now, all indicators from our peers and our university are that the leadership of these campuses want to have students back on our campuses, they're preparing to do that, they're saying that is the plan. And they're going through the exercise of, 'How do we do that in the safest way possible?'

Soccer might look a little bit different in the fall from what it's looked like for the past 20 years since I've been at Rochester. I mean, we might not be able to use our locker room. We might have to sanitize our equipment every single day. I don't know what it's going to look like, I'm just speculating that it could be different. Hopefully, we're back on campus, we're training, we're competing. Most of these decisions are completely out of our control as coaches. So we just have to react to them and support our students as best we can.

SA: Let’s say the fall season is canceled. I’ve heard from some players that they would take the semester off if that were the case. Do you anticipate some of your players to take the semester off to keep a year of eligibility?

CHRIS APPLE: I think the eligibility issue won't be an issue. The NCAA made that clear in the spring: anyone who's spring season was cut short is able to hold onto that season of eligibility.

The bigger question is: do college students want to do another semester online, or do they just want to take a semester off? Because the in-person college experience is something that they value.

SA: Paying a lot of money for  ...

CHRIS APPLE: As I said, the in-person experience is really highly valued. So if colleges go on-line in the fall, then I could see some students taking a semester off, or going to community college for a semester. At least at leading academic institutions like ours, if the students are on campus and able to go to school, they will. Even if athletics is off the table, I think most students will want to come back, see their friends and be in the dorms and go to class.

I think the bigger question is in-person or online, I don't think it's an eligibility issue.

SA: Let's continue with this hypothetical. It must be really hard to plan out your recruiting classes right now with so much in the air.

CHRIS APPLE: The hardest part is the evaluation process. Everything else — and I think this goes for most coaches — we have figured out how to do everything else as best we can. We have to be creative; we're doing zoom meetings with families. We're sending virtual tours through web links. We're talking to references, we're watching film, we're, ironically, probably further ahead with our 2021 class than we've ever been.

SA: Why is that?

CHRIS APPLE: For the past two months, we haven't had our students on campus, who we spend a lot of our day working with, supporting and training. While we're still supporting them remotely, there are a lot of free hours in the day to focus on recruiting. And it also takes a lot more time to have a family visit campus in person: you walk them around, meet with them, show them the campus, have them meet with your students, have lunch with them. When we do a zoom meeting with a family, we have found that an hour is a good length of time.

So you can actually accomplish a lot in the recruiting process. The evaluation process is hard. We really value live evaluations. Film is good, references are important. But live evaluation has always meant a lot to us, and we may need to rethink that. That's the one thing that we're missing.

SA: The recruiting class isn't worried about repercussions bleeding into the 2021 fall season?

CHRIS APPLE: Well, I've heard about this from other sports, like baseball, softball, and lacrosse, where students make use of that missed season of eligibility by returning for a fifth year and that creates a log jam for future students. I haven't heard that in soccer, probably because we haven't lost a season and hopefully we won't. But I could see similar questions being raised if we do miss a season and students do want to return for that year of eligibility, that could create a log jam.

At Rochester, I don't see it being as big of a problem as at a D1 school. Our kids are going to graduate and become engineers, go to med school, grad school; most will want to start their careers and lives.

SA: Might Division III programs be safer from being cut than D1 or D2 programs?

CHRIS APPLE: We might be safer when you look at the return on investment. If a small school program brings in eight kids a year, all of that tuition revenue is going to the university or the college. We're not providing athletic scholarships, our coaching staff salaries, our travel, they're all pretty low-budget items relative to the tuition dollars that are being generated from an athletics program.

SA: How would you categorize how Division III coaches are feeling about the safety of their programs?

CHRIS APPLE: The college coaches who are worried about the financial security of their institutions are worried about their soccer programs. There have been articles written recently about what the pandemic is doing to higher education. The small schools, with small endowments, that are really tuition driven are in danger of going out of business if students aren't back in the classroom in the fall. Some of those small schools are already in difficult financial situations. So I think those soccer coaches are rightfully concerned.

Coaches at schools with firmer financial footing can be a little bit more confident in the university's ability to function through this crisis and their athletic department's stability and in their soccer program's ability to continue to exist.

SA: In terms of Division III soccer, what are some unique impacts of the pandemic on a division level, conference level, and program level?

CHRIS APPLE: This could be seen as a strength coming out of the pandemic. Most small schools are already pretty regionalized in terms of their recruiting and in terms of their travel for competition. When you look at what's going to happen to travel most likely in the coming years and if we don't have a vaccine in the near future, everything is going to get localized. Division III schools are uniquely set up to thrive through that type of shrinking.

SA: What kind of communication do you get from the NCAA, ECAC, or the University of Rochester itself regarding athletics in the fall?

CHRIS APPLE: The NCAA sends out information to all of the divisions about temporary changes to recruiting rules, they sent a really good update on principles to return to play and competition. They're sending us regular updates based on what information they have.

Our university is sending regular updates as well, from our president, provost, dean of our college, and we receive weekly updates from our athletic director, about the state of things, the plans we had to make to close things down and now the plans being made to open things back up.

SA: How do you gauge their response to the virus?

CHRIS APPLE: Our university has been incredible partly because we have all of these medical experts. Infectious disease experts, we're doing cutting edge COVID-19 research at our hospital for trying to find a vaccine, all of that. So I feel like we're ahead of the curve on doing the work but also getting the information to the faculty, the staff, and the students.

SA: How have your players adjusted to offseason workouts in isolation?

CHRIS APPLE: They're coping, they're coping well. They're really disappointed and unhappy and it's not something they're enjoying or want to do, but they're managing as best can be expected. They're still getting their workouts in, mostly for mental and physical health more than anything. We're not focused on performance right now, or even preparing for performance. It's more like, 'let's stay healthy, let's stay active.' It's a wellness issue right now, we're not going to ask you for your times. We're going to send you the workouts so you can stay mentally and physically healthy.

It's a low-pressure approach from a coaching perspective, but the guys want it. They want some structure in their lives. They want us to keep sending them workouts.

SA: How do you guys stay in touch with each other?

CHRIS APPLE: We do full team zoom meetings and smaller group positional meetings. We've been doing random breakout rooms so that the upper and underclassmen spend some time together. For the summer, what we're going do is put them in positional training groups so they can stay connected with one another and talk about training, their fitness, and how they're doing. And then we're going to get together with the coaching staff and the team once a month just so we can give them some ideas and some encouragement. Typically, in the summer we don't do full team check-ins, but they wanted it. They wanted us to do it so that they could see each-others' faces.

SA: You have a couple international students on your roster. How does the pandemic affect their situation?

CHRIS APPLE: It shouldn’t negatively impact their situation. We have two students who were born in Africa who will be first-year students in the fall and both live in the U.S. and have dual citizenship. From what I have read, the state department is not currently issuing new international student visas in some countries, so it will be difficult for those students. Our returning sophomore from the Dominican Republic is in a similar situation to us; staying at home and following social distancing guidelines. But what he's told us so far is that he should be able to return in August.

SA: You’ve written for Soccer America about players pushing through adversity. Is there a silver lining to be found in any of this for players of any ages, to find a way to continue training and using soccer as an outlet during these times?

CHRIS APPLE: Well sure, of course. This is going to help their resilience. When you think about it either on an individual or global level, I think about my own life, and where I've found the greatest moments of growth were typically in some of the most challenging times. If you look at our nation, our world, historically what happens in the face of a world war, or 9/11, I think really trying times test us, but they also develop things in us that couldn't have been developed in normal times.

For the soccer player right now who's having to find more self-directed ways to train, to touch the ball, to stay connected to friends remotely. They won't notice it right away, but five years from now, 10 years from now, the way they managed themselves and the way they coped through this time, and the fact that they got through this time, that alone will be an achievement that they'll be able to use when times get tough in future years.

And I think the model that they're seeing from the adults in their life — when you see your mom or your dad or your coach or your teacher handle really challenging situations with grace and strength, it models for you how you should behave when you're in that role.

SA: You’ve also written about informal play, which I’m a big fan of. Might informal soccer have a bigger role to play in the coming months given the social distancing rules?

CHRIS APPLE: It's an interesting question. I hope informal play grows. And I think all of the leaders in soccer need to figure out ways to promote informal play, and this is going to sound crazy, even if it means formalizing informal play. Giving kids the space, time and equipment and just letting them play – the adults are only there for safety, not instruction. From a health perspective, games in the park might feel unsafe right now. I hope as we come out of this, though, informal play has a resurgence.

3 comments about "The pandemic impact on college soccer: the small-college perspective from Rochester's Chris Apple".
  1. Ben Myers, May 21, 2020 at 6:37 p.m.

    "formalizing informal play. Giving kids the space, time and equipment and just letting them play – the adults are only there for safety, not instruction."  Needs to be embraced by all of youth soccer, but especially for the younger ones.  Out here in the ex-urbs, it is easy.  Schedule a field and time, post a message: "Y'all come and play."  No limit on age of players.   Adults can play, but not instruct.  Younger kids learn from the older players.  I've run pickup "programs" in the past.  They are a lot of fun and everyone learns something.  How can you beat that?

  2. frank schoon replied, May 26, 2020 at 8:18 a.m.

    Ben, Perfect!  That 's the way it should be all the time

  3. Patrick Bell, May 22, 2020 at 3:37 p.m.

    I am former UR varsity player played one year, 1981. Glad to see Rochester continuing to have a strong soccer community.  All the best trying to work through this challenging situation.

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