As spring sports at Long Beach State commence, there is one team missing out on the swings, serves and matches of the 2021 season: women’s tennis.
The women’s tennis team announced in February that it has chosen to opt out of the 2021 competition after the players came to a 7-1 decision. Although the vote was nearly unanimous, it followed weeks of both individual and group discussions between the team and coaches.
“We got back in early January expecting to practice, then we couldn’t practice until weeks later, so our season kept shrinking and shrinking,” said head coach Jenny Hilt-Costello. “The conversation first came up in January.”
The tennis team is the only program in Long Beach State Athletics that has chosen to opt out, as well as the only tennis team in the Big West Conference.
According to Hilt-Costello, a shorter season with much less time to practice was the main factor for players in coming to this decision. The team usually begins practice in the fall, so they were months behind schedule and facing a six-week season.
“When COVID-19 started, we had to stop for six months with no practice. I had the chance to go back home and practice at home, but for other girls COVID was still increasing at home and they couldn’t practice,” said junior player Zara Lennon. “When we came back, we felt like we had to practice more and get in shape. Everyone felt like we still needed more work to compete for Big West.”
The team is well aware of what it takes to compete in the Big West, since they were the last program to claim the title of Big West Champions in 2019. In the shortened 2020 season, they had a conference record of 3-1.
Rather than feeling the need to rush back into competition to defend their title, the players felt a sense of relief knowing their spots on the team would be secure while they took the extra time to practice and get in shape. There are also three freshmen on the team who they feel would not be prepared for such a short season and practice time.
“It was difficult, it doesn’t feel good to step away, but they feel that they’re gaining more by doing this,” Hilt-Costello said. “What they’re gaining by stepping away is more than if they played. I truly believe they made the decision in their best interest, and I’m here to support them.”
The two seniors on the team are both planning to head east to pursue a master’s degree and continue playing tennis, Hilt-Costello said, which means neither player will be losing their last collegiate season.
“Had we had one or two seniors losing their last season, the decision would have been more difficult,” Hilt-Costello said.
Concerns over COVID-19 protocols were also a large part of the discussion. While the tennis team has had no players, coaches or staff members test positive for the coronavirus, players felt hesitant to travel to other schools and interact with those outside their bubble to enter competition.
“We have a certain way of doing things here that we feel is safe,” Hilt-Costello said. “They can see what’s going on at other schools and what other schools are doing, and that made them feel differently.”
As COVID-19 vaccinations are becoming more widely available, players have expressed uncertainty regarding whether their decision to receive the vaccine would affect their eligibility to play.
Athletic director Andy Fee said in February that vaccinations will be optional for members of the department but mandatory for those wishing to participate in in-person activity, and the NCAA said that student athletes could opt-out of the 2020-21 competition with no effect on their eligibility.
Ultimately, however, the decision to opt out seemed safer for everyone, Hilt-Costello said.
Now that practice for spring sports has been approved, the tennis team is making up for lost time and preparing for the 2022 competition year.
“We all feel confident about going back to compete next semester,” Lennon said. “We feel really confident and back in shape. We are practicing everyday, and the team is working really hard. There’s still a lot to do because we haven’t competed in a long time, but everybody is starting to get their confidence back.”