Masked and mighty: St. Olaf athletics returns with boosted morale

On Sept. 4, the St. Olaf football team kicked off their season. 658 days prior, the Oles were licking their wounds after a tough loss to rival Gustavus-Adolphus. Defeated yet hopeful, the underclassmen looked towards the next season, a season that would never come. 

The near two years between these football games at St. Olaf have been a whirlwind. COVID-19 prevented the St. Olaf football team from participating in any official games during the 2020-2021 school year. Their only competition was a joint practice with Augsburg in the spring of 2021. The lack of game action hurt the morale of the team.

“There wasn’t an enthusiasm in regards to practice last year because it’s hard to work for something when there is no end goal,” Ben Hestorff ’24 said. Hestorff is one of 64 first year and sophomore players beginning their first true college football season.

Besides affecting the ability to play games, COVID-19 stopped the team from forming the close bonds typical of a college sports team.

“Just that fellow teammate camaraderie I think was the biggest thing we missed out on,” Lars Prestemon ’22 said. Hestorff agreed, as he found the pod system, where players only interacted with their position coach and players who played the same position, prevented him from getting to know most of the guys on the team. “I definitely knew a whole bunch of defensive players more than I knew offensive players last year,” Hestorff said. 

Across St. Olaf athletics, the absence of games and the lack of social interaction contributed to a campus-wide dip in student mental health. “The social aspect changed a bunch and I think because of that there was a drop in mental health. People were starting to focus on themselves more. Kind of over analyze and think internally a lot,” said Colton Funk, co-director of sports medicine and associate athletic trainer at St. Olaf. 

“We’ve had probably a 100 to 200 percent increase in mental health cases throughout campus and throughout the NCAA. By far I think that’s the biggest struggle we had last year,” Funk said. “Hopefully this increase in socialization from the vaccine will decrease this scope in mental health.” This season has already produced promising results in turning around student-athlete mental health.

Practices for football are no longer limited by pods, and fall sports were able to have pre-season camps where teammates could bond together. “I think this year morale has been awesome. Having that fall camp, being in a pod in Ytterboe with 10 buddies, I think that really boosted morale,” Prestemon said.

The transition back to full-team practices and socialization this semester may not be apparent to the crowd when the Oles take the field, course, or court. The appreciation for the importance of competition and teamwork that COVID-19 put into perspective dwarfs any changes to testing protocol, masking, or vaccination status. This fall, St. Olaf athletics will return after a long hiatus, and no one is more thankful than the student-athletes who will once again get to compete.

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