Since the outbreak of the coronavirus earlier this year, nothing has been quite the same. Businesses have shut down, social distancing measures have been put into place and masks have become a necessity in public. Collegiate sports are no exception to any of these changes.
The main concern with the coronavirus is, obviously, the players’ health. Every regulation put into place and COVID test taken is to ensure that soccer can be played while players stay healthy. The Vols had one player opt-out due to COVID concerns, and the rest have remained relatively healthy.
“We’ve had one positive case so far,” Pensky said. “But that was actually back in July. And we’ve had a couple of kids have to quarantine because of close contacts."
In the midst of a five-month break from official practices, Pensky believes that the team did not fall behind in terms of training, conditioning, scouting or anything that would give them an advantage in the season.
“I think it comes back to everybody is in the same boat,” Pensky said. “Everybody is in the same boat in terms of March 15 on, nobody had their kids, nobody trained, nobody played more games and we all have within the conference equal accessibility in terms of our kids in the summertime. A lot of it comes down to how hard do your kids train, how good do they want to be, and how important is it to them.”
The Lady Vols did not waste the break the shutdown gave them. Many of them spent the summer training to come into the new season stronger than before.
“Like I said, in terms of our fitness testing when this group returned to campus, we had some of the highest scores in program history,” Pensky said. “Our kids really took that mid-March through July time seriously. They really improved, in terms of their conditioning and fitness base.”
Pensky mentioned junior Mackenzie George specifically as someone who impressed him with the shutdown workout routine.
“Mackenzie George was back home again, but she was training every day,” Pensky said. “She was running every day. Her dad built her a wall in her driveway, so she was playing against the wall every day, and really working on her finishing. And she’s a hungry kid that’s also looking to take that next step.”
The pandemic has also resulted in a new, shortened schedule for this season. Last Thursday, the SEC announced the soccer season will consist of an eight-match, conference-only regular season over eight weeks of competition beginning Sept. 18, followed by the SEC Championship, Nov. 13-22, in Orange Beach, Alabama. All 14 schools will compete in the SEC Championship with each team guaranteed at least two matches.
Pensky believes the new schedule format will present several challenges, but his team is approaching the season on a week-by-week basis, and they are up for any challenges they will face.
“The question is, one week we might be in total survival mode because we have the minimum number permissible to play a game,” Pensky said. “And it’s ninety degrees, twelve o’ clock on a Sunday, and a couple of those kids are still not the healthiest, because they’re coming back from injuries and it’s literally survival mode.”
“We might go into a game like we are training today where we eighteen to twenty kids all feeling good and everybody’s healthy and let’s freaking go, let’s use as many bodies as possible. We know we’re playing against a depleted roster, and we want to run them into the ground.”
When the Vols play at home this season, it will be before a limited capacity. Regal Soccer Stadium, like many other sports facilities across the country, are allowing guests in reduced capacity to ensure proper social distancing for the health of the players, coaches, staff, and fans.
“Our stadium seats three thousand, so we’re going to have up to seven-hundred and fifty fans in attendance,” Pensky said. “We’re really hopeful that the community is going to be excited to have a live sporting event back on campus here at Tennessee.”
“Hopefully, we’ll have some people locked out of the stadium because it will be a COVID capacity sellout. That would be really cool.”
In a season of uncertainty, one thing is certain for the Vols -- they want to win.
“I think all of us have to have a little bit of a roll with it mentality,” Pensky said. “And look at it like this is a year for us to get better, and continue to grow individually and collectively, and while we’re doing it we want to compete for something.”