CHAMPAIGN — Hope Breslin left the Illinois campus in mid-March when the NCAA canceled all remaining winter and spring sports and other organized team activities. Which included the Illini soccer team’s spring practices that she was supposed to take part in.
Breslin’s departure from Champaign put her not quite on the epicenter during the early days and weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States but awfully close. Her home in Massapequa, N.Y., is just 40 miles east out on Long Island from New York City.
“Seeing that surge early on in March you really got to see firsthand what this pandemic is,” Breslin said. “It was kind of crazy especially seeing my friends from other states just on different social medias still kind of living their life kind of normal and being in New York where everything was shut down.
“I wouldn’t even see extended family. We’d do a drive by each other’s houses, but no hugging or hanging out with them. We were the first ones that got hit so bad. It was a totally different perspective than if you were in another state at that time.”
Breslin returned to the UI campus in early July. She did so with a broader view of the pandemic, and it’s why, while the Big Ten’s decision to postpone all fall sports in mid-August was disappointing, it wasn’t all that surprising.
“I’d say that kind of put it into perceptive for me early on,” Breslin said of her time back in New York.
Breslin’s time back on campus the last month-plus did the same for how she feels about being back in Champaign. The soccer team was getting tested for the coronavirus twice a week this summer. The university itself is testing all students twice a week since classes resumed this past Monday.
“I feel safe here right now,” Breslin said. “I think we have really good protocols put in place. … But the Big Ten canceled. I think us as a school, as a university, we were surprised because of everything put in place here, but just realizing other schools may not have the same luxuries with testing and contact tracing that we do.”
The Big Ten’s decision puts Breslin on uncertain ground. The Illinois midfielder is a senior. With aspirations to play soccer after her time with the Illini.
“I think it hits a little different for the seniors,” said Breslin, who is one of eight on the Illinois roster. “It’s your last go at it, your last hurrah. Now it’s been put on hold for a second, and you have to wait a little bit still with that uncertainty you may not play in the spring.”
Breslin said the Illinois seniors took that first day after the Big Ten’s postponement announcement to deal with the decision and allowed themselves to be upset. Then it was back to work. The hope is to play this spring, and that’s where the Illini’s focus has turned.
“We threw out all the practice plans,” Breslin said. “Things are going to be different now during practice since we’re used to practicing every day at least once a day and then having competitive games on the weekend. Now it’s looking a little different. Maybe we’ll add a few more lifts in or a scrimmage or two within the team. We’ve put in some little small victories we can put in throughout the week to keep us motivated enough to continue practicing into the spring season.”
Breslin has NWSL aspirations. That spring season could be critical in hitting them given her offseason shift to a central midfielder role. Breslin tied for the team lead in goals scored in 2019 with six, and her position switch will put the ball at her feet even more.
“I think I’m able to get the ball a lot more in that position and have the play go through the midfield,” Breslin said. “The versatility of that position really helps my skill set. I can maybe get at defenders on one play but then serve a good ball behind the defense to another player the next play.”
A spring season, of course, would fall after the NWSL College Draft, which has been regularly held in January. Unless the date changes much like the rest of the sports world has in the past five months.
Breslin realizes that puts her in a “weird spot,” but it’s something she’s not trying to focus on at this point.
“There are so many unknowns right now and things have been changing daily,” she said. “I think right now it’s kind of a ways away. I still have a few more months and possibly another season. Who knows if the draft will still be in January or if they’ll move it to after this new college season?”
Scott Richey is a reporter covering college basketball at The News-Gazette. His email is email@example.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).