Wingate Fall Sports Find Unprecedented Success Across the Board in Absence of COVID Threat

Staff Writer: RJ Rennie

Wingate’s fall sports teams have each had successful seasons in 2022 in
the first semester, the first campaign not impacted by COVID-19 since
January of 2020. From cross country to football, volleyball to soccer,
almost every sport that Wingate has participated in this fall has either
been crowned conference champions or qualified for the NCAA
Tournament.


Every sport was affected by the pandemic beginning in the spring of 2020. The fall sports that year were forced to play abridged schedules,
and volleyball played a spring season rather than its usual fall campaign.
The effects of the pandemic continued to spill over into fall of 2021, as
university mask mandates and social distancing remained in effect with
no timeline as to when the restrictions would be lifted. Student-athletes
were affected just as much, if not more so, as regular students.


Fall 2022, however, marked the first full semester in almost three years
that was uninhibited by the pandemic or any outside factors, and the
success as a result has been on full display. Wingate University’s
president, Dr. Rhett Brown, has high praise for the programs and, most
importantly, the university as a whole.


“Wingate’s athletic teams and our administrative staff kept our programs
active and productive during the height of the pandemic,” Brown said.
“And due to the successful foundation we’ve built over the last couple of
decades, the fall teams are continuing the University’s run of great
results. And I can’t say enough good things about our Sports Medicine
and Student Health Center teams. There’s no way we’re as safe and
successful without their extraordinary efforts.”


One of the big success stories is the football team. After a late loss to
Newberry, costing it a chance at the South Atlantic Conference championship, the team still finished the regular season 9-2 and ranked
fifth in the regional rankings, good enough to make the 28-team NCAA
Playoffs bracket, where the Bulldogs won their first two games on the
road in the South Regional, beating fourth-seeded Virginia Union 32-7
and top-seeded Benedict 23-7. Wingate, which is now 11-2 overall and
undefeated away from home this year, now heads to Pensacola, Fla., to
play 11-1 West Florida Dec. 3 in the national quarterfinals.
After a shortened 2020 season and a disappointing end to the 2021
campaign, head coach Joe Reich is pleased with his team’s progress now
in the absence of the virus.


“The overall mental well being of our guys [is better],” said Reich,
whose team travels to Columbia, S.C., Nov. 26 to take on the region’s
top seed, Benedict, in the second round. “ We are back to semi-normal
now and things are operating as they should and the guys just seem
happier for it. Our training was drastically affected by COVID, so to
have no restrictions and to be able to be in groups and work out together
obviously has been fantastic and has helped us get better as a team.”


Volleyball is another sport that has had a remarkable season after the
pandemic’s departure. After losing to Lenoir-Rhyne in the second round
of the NCAA Tournament a year ago, the Bulldogs responded by
winning the regular-season conference title, hosting a regional and
winning all three games in that tournament to qualify for the NCAA’s
Elite Eight to be held in Seattle Dec. 1-3. Wingate, which is 32-2
heading into its NCAA quarterfinals matchup with West Texas A&M
Dec. 1 at 3 p.m., took home both of the league’s top individual honors
for Player of the Year (Shannon Kasprak) and Coach of the Year
(Shelton Collier). Collier praises his team, which has been ranked in the
Top 25 all season, for its success during the COVID campaigns, but also
attributes the team’s success this year to the struggles faced during that
time.


“Our team managed the COVID crisis in impressive fashion,” Collier
said. “[The players] worked hard physically, stayed in touch via Zoom and we still won another championship in the COVID season, [which
was] really rewarding. The fact that we stayed strong together as a team,
and made significant progress both individually and as a team during a
challenging period, set us up for the success we are now having. I am so
proud of our team for adapting during and after COVID, really showing
a special maturity and determination.”


These two teams are not the only sports to achieve success this fall. Both
the men’s and women’s cross country teams won their conference and
regional championships (hosting that event at Wingate Nov. 19) and are
on their way to the NCAA Championships at Chambers Creek Regional
Park in University Place, Wash., Dec. 2.


Men’s soccer claimed its regular-season conference title and women’s
soccer reached the SAC Tournament finals before falling to Limestone.
Both teams received bids to the NCAA Tournament as seventh seeds in
the Southeast Region. While the women, who finished 11-5-4, lost in the
first round at Catawba, the men (10-5-7) won their first two NCAA
games in overtime on penalty kicks before finally succumbing on the
road to No. 23-ranked Barry, 2-1, in the round of 16.


So, almost every sport at the university has postseason aspirations and
has had some form of regular-season success, the only exception being
field hockey which is in its inaugural season. Assistant Athletic Director
Molick Scott believes the success of the university’s sports can be
viewed as a demonstration of recovery for not only the school as a
whole, but the town and the county in general.


“I think you can see the results of recovery through the performance of
our sports programs.” Scott said. “This is one of the best fall seasons
success-wise that this school has experienced in a few years, with
multiple programs earning postseason bids into the NCAA Tournament.
Our athletes have been eager to get back out there in front of the fans,
community and their family members and they are thriving from that
support.”

Others around the university agree with Scott.
“We’ve been successful in bouncing back from the pandemic because of
cooperation and collaboration on and off campus.” Dr. Brown said.
“Whether it’s the school system, business/industry, local government or
community agencies, the story is the same — working together makes us
all better and more resilient in challenging times.”
Reich said: “As far as Union County is concerned, I do think that is a
microcosm of what is happening here. [Whether that be] improving
mental health, [or] improving quality of life.”

“At Wingate, we are all so proud of the amazingly successful athletic
program we have established in every sport here on campus,” Collier
said. “And we enjoy the great community support of all the programs.”
The school’s sports success this fall, the first semester unimpaired by
COVID in more than two years, represents the recovery from the
pandemic for Union County as a whole. The university has rallied
around its athletic success, and hopes that others will be able to follow
the example set by the school this year in terms of recovery.

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