ANN ARBOR – In a typical season, Concordia University Ann Arbor’s Athletic Director Lonnie Pries brings an energy to the campus that is palpable. It should come as no surprise then that a pandemic hasn’t kept him down.
Whether he’s hand-delivering cookies to students’ dorms or doling out Zoom humor to lighten the mood, Pries has done his share to keep spirits high amidst COVID-19.
Now, in the midst of the busiest sports season in CUAA history, Pries shares some of the strategies he’s employed to keep coaches and players motivated, and programs vibrant.
What do CUAA athletics look like right now with COVID restrictions?
We got to the start of second semester and the State of Michigan announced that it would give permission for schools to play, but only if they did testing. Thanks to some of the resources we have on the Wisconsin campus, we had the ability to test our athletes! We were probably one of the only schools at our size in the state that was able to do that, so it was a tremendous benefit to our students – one that many of their peers didn’t get. For a while, we were overnighting bags of spit in containers, three times a week, to the Mequon campus. We had to test six days a week in order to play.
Since then, Michigan’s governor has lifted the testing restriction and all schools are able to play with masks on. So our season is in full swing here. We have literally every sport competing this spring. What’s been exciting is that we’ve had some great seasons so far with many of our programs – and they’ve had the full slate of competition, even, so we’re all just really thankful that our athletes didn’t completely miss out on a year of competitive play.
What’s been the reaction from players and coaches?
You have the gamut of people who are touched by this – some who literally have known people who died and then those who are at the other end of the spectrum. So I’ve had to be conscious about navigating that. Honestly, my counseling degree has never been more useful!
In general though, it’s almost like a yo-yo, the up and down. I still remember last March, when I had to call baseball. They had traveled all the way to Florida and I had to call and tell them that they had to cancel the remainder of their tournament games. Head Coach Zach Johnston still says that was one of the toughest days of his life.
We’ve had ups and downs with specific teams getting struck with the virus. Once it starts to hit four or five players on a team, it’s really hard to find ways to pivot from that.
The constant unknown is tough, especially if you’re someone who likes to plan. It’s toughened people up though. People have learned to be more flexible than ever. There are things that have stretched people and made them strong. There’s definitely more positive vibes from the athletes than ever because they’re just thankful to have the chance to play.
You place a high emphasis on faith growth among athletes. How have you been able to continue to encourage those opportunities amidst COVID?
We’ve had to get creative with meetings, team bonding, and the use of virtual breakout rooms. I utilize a Bible app for my regular coach connects. The Bible app has five-day plans and we’ll carve out time without monthly meetings to go through and have people share what stood out to them. And then we’ll break up into small groups virtually. We’ve continued to do that throughout the season.
The coaches have taken that idea and implemented it into their personal team routine. They brought in videos, speakers, etc. and broke up into breakout rooms to talk about it. That part of it made it very easy to get some small group discussion going, really in a way that might not have happened pre-COVID.
Of all years, it would have been easy this year to throw in the towel on some of your efforts to keep programs going. But what are the benefits of sports for students, even in the midst of a challenging year?
Oh gosh, there are so many: having to work together with other people, and all the physical, mental, and emotional lessons you learn from sport. To have that go away would create a huge void for a lot of students. Really, that logic applies for a lot of extra-curriculars. Just flat out being around people – we were made to be in community, and for a lot of people that is how they interact. I just think from a mental health standpoint, it’s so important that kids are allowed to play sport, as well as interact, participate in the fine arts, and just go to school. You learn better in person, you grow better in person, you connect better in person.
Concordia University Ann Arbor athletics exists to develop servant leaders who strive for excellence in academics, athletics, and personal growth while maturing as Christians together. Keep up with Concordia Cardinals athletics at concordiacardinals.com.