Now, out of the shadow of the pandemic, the women's lacrosse team is ready for a historic season. Kate Hua/Daily. Buy this photo.

The implications of COVID stretch far past health, and for the Michigan women’s lacrosse team, the pandemic-inflicted burden hampered their 2021 season.

Being part of a team entails much more than the product on the field. Goals and assists may appear in the boxscore, but without camaraderie and trust, little production — and subsequent winning — can occur. 

As someone who’s been around the game of lacrosse all of her life, first as a decorated player and now as the Michigan coach, Hannah Nielsen understands that better than anyone.

“It’s about road trips and eating together and being on the same bus,” Nielsen said. “Just those little things you have along the way. That’s how you build relationships.”

In a year where student athletes around the country lived in fear of falling ill, sacrificed their social lives and played in front of empty bleachers, building strong connections seemed inconceivable.

Last year, despite having talented pieces, the blockage of any normalcy proved too severe for the Wolverines. They finished 3-9, concluding their season with a demoralizing loss to Maryland in the Big Ten Tournament.

Activities as basic as eating meals together and spending time as a group are often overlooked, but without them, chemistry is unattainable. 

“We couldn’t (do) the little things you do off the field,” Nielsen said. “Wins and losses are great but lacrosse and the collegiate-athlete experience is so much more than that.”

The team experienced firsthand that the impacts of the pandemic ran deep. 

At a school that excels in athletics, people often focus on the “athlete” part in “student-athlete,” but first and foremost, these players are students. In late 2021, as the Omicron variant soared and outlook on life seemed grim, the expectations for collegiate athletes to perform grew even higher. 

But with immense sacrifice and little optimism, it’s difficult to live up to the expectations.

With vaccinations in full effect and the pandemic winding down, normalcy was beginning to resurface. As the world inched towards equilibrium and the 2022 season neared, many unanswered questions remained, the most glaring one being:

What now?

The team could dwell on the previous season’s shortcomings or focus on the future; the choice was obvious to them.

“It was ‘Hey guys, let’s forget about it, it happened and we’re moving on,’ ” Nielsen said. “The girls are motivated because 3-9 … wasn’t really a true illustration of who we are and what we could accomplish.”

The silver lining of the pandemic, though, was an extra year of eligibility. The love of their team, school and sport drove fifth-year captains Caitlin Muir and Arielle Weissman to exercise that. 

“(Coming back) was never anything that I thought about before COVID happened,” Muir said. “But with not getting to finish out my years on my own terms, it was really a done deal.”

As COVID-induced crutches lifted and the team began to focus on building relationships and nurturing talent, the players set out to show that the driving force of the abysmal 2021 season was the looming pandemic and not the players themselves.

The Wolverines opened their season with seven straight wins — making it clear to everybody what they were capable of.

Leadership from seniors Erin Garvey, Kaitlyn Mead and Morgan Whitaker in addition to the two fifth-years displays the potential that the pandemic covered up in the previous season.

“They’re doing a great job,” Nielsen said. “It makes me want to coach harder because of the effort they’re putting in so that we can reach our goals this year.”

People often dismiss what occurs behind the scenes and see sports as merely the product on the field. COVID displayed how false that narrative is.

The pandemic exposed the necessity of team-building, and as college athletics reverted back to pre-COVID conditions, Michigan wasted no time re-implementing all of the little things that amount to strong teams.

For a program that has historically found little success, understanding the importance of strong relationships has flipped the switch.

The Wolverines have already shown they’re more than the product they put on the field last season. Now, the challenge lies in reaching even greater heights.