When West Chester football coach Bill Zwaan loses a tough one, he always goes back to his time coaching at Widener, and a loss to Lycoming.
”Worst loss at Widener,” Zwaan said of losing a lead in the last minutes, and losing the game when they couldn’t recover an onside kick, giving up only two touchdowns that day, but both in the last minute.
Zwaan woke up the next morning, so upset. His coaches were totally upset. His players were totally upset.
“I realized, I don’t have time to be this upset,” Zwaan said. “I have to change my thinking. Now.”
Which brings us to this week. West Chester didn’t just lose a game. The whole fall just got wiped out.
Zwaan doesn’t keep his head in the sand. He had a good idea of what was coming for some days. The Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference announced Wednesday morning the league had decided to “suspend all mandated conference athletic events and championships through the fall semester in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The next sentence of the announcement tried to offer some hope: “The Conference has already undertaken a full review of its ability to shift fall sports competition and championships to the spring semester and fully intends to do so if a return to competition can be safely executed.”
“You know that’s a hope right now,” Zwaan said. “It’s not a definite thing.”
This announcement is one of many such decisions across the landscape, but no small thing locally. The PSAC, competing at the NCAA Division II level, probably has more students, and more student-athletes, from the Philadelphia region than any other league. When you consider all the sports impacted, this one might hit hardest of all locally.
Zwaan knew that without the resources of the Power 5, his level isn’t really equipped to handle setbacks.
“All I was thinking about, how I could make the kids feel better about it, how we could be positive about it?” Zwaan said over the phone after an early-morning Zoom meeting with his team. “As a coach, that’s what you’re thinking about, what are you going to do to keep them moving in the right direction?”
He didn’t mean in a football sense.
“So many kids go to college for all sorts of reasons,” Zwaan said. “You take something away from them, it makes them think about everything. ‘Do I really want to take online classes? Do I take a semester off?’”
West Chester already has announced it will have almost all fall classes fully online. That’s why this PSAC decision had the feel of inevitability. “Remote learning” doesn’t leave much room for sports.
“I’ve got 95 kids, 10 are thinking one way, 20 are thinking another one,” Zwaan said. “You’ve got to take all that into account.”
It was all right in front of him on the Zoom call.
“You see the kids on the screen, you can just see on their faces,” Zwaan said. “They all had a feeling something was coming. You can see it in their eyes: It’s destroying them. They’re having trouble dealing with it.”
His assistants show him a social media post from a freshman talking about how bad college has been so far for his class. How can he argue? But his job now, he said, is to keep them on track to graduate.
“It’s not only football,” Zwaan said. “They’re not having a college experience.”
Then he thinks of his seniors, their last experience, looking out the door, unsure if they’ve played their last game or not. Zwaan gets exactly where they’re coming from.
“I’m at the end of my career,” Zwaan said. “But I can’t sit around and feel sorry for myself.”
Sure, that Lycoming loss still stings. I actually covered it. October 1998, battle of Division III unbeatens. The game story started, “In the end, the only sound on the Widener sideline was of helmets that had been ripped off of heads, popping against the ground.”
“Devastating,” Zwaan said on a Wednesday morning 22 years later.
There’s little wonder he thought back to that one for perspective. This time, the onside kick for all the teams might be the hope that conditions allow for spring play.