On October 17, Michael Flanagan ’21 was seated in the Deeds Field press box. It was one of those picture-perfect fall afternoons in Granville. The sun was out and the trees were vibrant shades of crimson and gold. The 60-degree temperature barely warranted a sweatshirt.
Clad with a headset, roster, and ballpoint pen, Flanagan was providing the play-by-play to the live video stream of the women’s lacrosse intrasquad scrimmage. Flanagan was calling the action on the field but you couldn’t help but notice a hint of sadness in his voice.
This was supposed to be his year.
Flanagan is a senior member of the Denison football team who missed the Big Red’s 2019 NCAC Championship season with an injury. This was his #ComebackSzn. This was the year he would reassume his position as a leader of the defense. This was the day he should have been playing The College of Wooster for the Old Red Lantern on this very same field.
The moment was not lost on Flanagan. You could tell Saturday afternoons were eating him alive.
Flanagan’s story is echoed in so many Denison student-athletes who had their seasons shortened or purged over the last eight months as the NCAC suspended spring play and eventually fall and winter conference competition due to COVID.
One of the clichés that follow Division III athletes around is that they are “doing it for the love of the game.” While that is fundamentally true, the philosophy has been tested because regardless of what level of the NCAA a school is in, the truth is athletes do love the game, but they also like to compete and win. And this fall, when the wins could not come against other opponents, Denison coaches and athletes found the wins in drills and intrasquad competition, time spent working on their craft, and through focused team building.
Senior All-American Abby Scully ’21 returned hoping to lead her field hockey team to a fourth-straight conference title and a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. Like Flanagan, those plans were altered.
“Our team spent the fall growing as much as we could,” said Scully. “We understood how lucky we were to be able to play or scrimmage at all so we made it our goal to use every opportunity to the fullest.”
The women’s soccer team was led through a book titled The Mindful Athlete by George Mumford over the summer. When the team arrived, they were prepared to put the book into action.
“Something our team achieved was being able to persist, and demonstrate the resilience that comes with being a Denison athlete,” said women’s soccer senior Danica Kontic ’21. “We had to accept that this season was going to be a unique one, and therefore make the most out of what we were able to accomplish.”
This was supposed to be Gail Murphy’s 24th season leading the women’s soccer program at Denison. It won’t be forgotten anytime soon.
“I’m not going to sugarcoat it, this was an extremely hard semester,” noted Murphy. “No games, nine weeks of training, and five intrasquad scrimmages, but we made it through together and we are ready to move forward together.”
Head Field Hockey coach P.J. Soteriades echoed many of Murphy’s sentiments.
“This fall was as physically, emotionally, and mentally challenging for student-athletes as our most competitive seasons,” said Soteriades. “This was a testament to just how much they love their sport, and their desire to grow regardless of competition.”
For practices and scrimmages to even happen it took a daring commitment by the University and its employees. The expectations to live up to protocols were passed to the student body.
“I couldn’t be any prouder of our coaching staff, our student-athletes and our sports medicine and sports performance staff for all that was accomplished this fall,” said Associate V.P. and Director of Athletics, Nan Carney-DeBord ’80.
“On top of their regular workload treating our student-athletes, our athletic trainers were there for the entire campus community, administering COVID-19 tests every Monday. I’ve never been prouder to be associated with a group of professionals.”
“Honestly, very few Division III volleyball programs were able to do as much as we were able to do, in regards to training and scrimmages,” said head volleyball coach Carter Cassell. “In a semester where it was easy to dwell on what we couldn’t do we are appreciative of all that we could do.”
Flanagan’s era of Denison football will be remembered as the time when the Big Red ascended to the top of the conference and became a national-caliber program. There were gobs of wins, two league titles, and a trip to the Division III playoffs sprinkled in. That’s not the first or even the third thing that will come to Flanagan’s mind when he revisits suiting up for the Big Red.
“I’m going to miss the feeling of waking up on a Saturday and touching the rock on the way out to the field,” Flanagan said. “The best part of sports is the unity and relationships you build with your teammates and coaches. That’s what resonates with me most about Denison football.”