Rob Borman, Wesleyan’s grounds manager, watched as Wesleyan and Emerson’s soccer teams went through warmups on a beautiful late summer day.
It was warm and the sun shined as the players went through passing drills and stretched on the perfect turf. Emerson’s players shouted through their drills. Wesleyan’s goalies bounded from side to side as they practiced knocking away shots on goal.
Borman, though, wasn’t looking at the players. He was checking out his brand-new field, installed in May. “That is 100 percent Kentucky bluegrass,” he said. “The ball should roll awesome.”
For the first time in two years, Jackson Field was alive.
Three hundred spectators watched Wesleyan beat Emerson in men’s soccer 2-0 on Sept. 7, the first game in the fall sports season. In a full sports week, Wesleyan’s women’s soccer team defeated Keene State 7-0 and the women’s field hockey squad downed Western New England 6-1.
You would never know that the Cardinals had almost two full years off because of the global pandemic.
“It felt great. It was about 600 days since the last time we played, so sophomores and first years were extremely excited to get out there,” said Ethan Barrett ’24, a member of the men’s soccer team. “This is the thing we were talking about. This is the thing we were dreaming about, to get on this field.”
“I think the energy was already up from the start. We wanted to come into the season with great momentum,” said Myla Stovall ’22, captain of the field hockey team.
Geoff Wheeler is entering his 23rd season of coaching men’s soccer at Wesleyan. Negotiating the extended layoff was like nothing he had experienced in his long career.
Wheeler’s challenge over the past year was just trying to keep his squad engaged. It was hard for he and his coaching staff to make long-term plans, he said. There were a lot of Zoom meetings and sharing articles—not the normal training model for soccer players. “You do what’s immediately in front of you. You set short-term goals. You can’t plan in advance because you just don’t know what the future holds,” Wheeler said.
Stovall said her team used the time off to become more cohesive as a unit. “We really took last year as a growing opportunity. We really came at it with a positive mindset that, yes, we have no games, but we can use this time to our advantage,” she said.
For the first game, all that planning was in the past. “I’ve been doing it long enough that I don’t think I’ll forget anything today, but you want to be a little nervous,” Wheeler said.
This year’s Wesleyan men’s squad is a young team – for two-thirds of them, this contest was their first collegiate competition. Wheeler ordinarily likes to let his players dictate the flow of the game. This season, he’ll be more directly involved, directing traffic, orchestrating the tempo of his team. “I anticipate us getting better and better as the season goes on,” Wheeler said.
Emerson College had tied its first game of the season and was sure to give Wesleyan all it could handle.
Wesleyan jumped out to an early 1-0 lead on a successful penalty kick by Dane Harmaty ’24.
However, it was a spectacular goal by a pair of first-year players that finished off Emerson. Lucas Ruehlemann ’25 lofted a pass to Zach Wheeler ’25 on the left-wing. Wheeler, who is listed at just 5’6”, fought off a 6-foot-tall defender, dribbled in front of the goal, and fired a hard shot with a bit of curve into the bottom right corner of the net, past the diving Emerson goalkeeper. “It was a great goal and even better celebration,” said Maxx McNall, Wesleyan’s interim director of athletic communications.
“Everyone was firing—contributions from the freshmen. We have a really young core, but everyone stepped up today,” Barrett said.
Wesleyan had a successful first week of games, but that wasn’t the real victory. The virus has taken a lot away from people, not the least of which was the uninhibited freedom to compete, the freedom to play. “This is our first real test as a team against the competition. I couldn’t be prouder. I feel really good. We have good chemistry. Our prospects are really good,” Barrett said.
If all goes well—and COVID remains at bay—Borman’s prized Kentucky bluegrass will get more than its share of use this fall.
(Maxx McNall, Wesleyan’s interim director of athletic communications, contributed to this report.)