Monday, April 19, 2021

Column: covering sports from the backburner in a pandemic

April 7, 2021
<p>A hallway in the Breslin Center photographed during a game against OSU on Feb. 25, 2021.</p>

A hallway in the Breslin Center photographed during a game against OSU on Feb. 25, 2021.

Photo by Alyte Katilius | The State News

Truthfully, nothing could have prepared me for this pandemic-riddled semester of Michigan State athletics coverage. I’m a baby, a beginner, a rookie, fresh meat. Well, I was when I returned to The State News' sports desk in November after a stint on the culture desk.

The State News had hired me in October 2019 as a staff intern reporter on the sports desk. I was only there for two weeks, but I did features on cross country runner Annie Fuller and women's golfer Valery Plata, covered a men's soccer mud match and a hockey exhibition, previewed a women's soccer game and broke word about a three-star running back recruit the football team had picked up.

I reapplied at The State News to keep my position on the staff in December 2019. 

I hadn't reported on sports since my first days and instead had been on city and campus news duty — no offense but, boring. However, things were about to change. I got a call from the editor-in-chief at the time and was offered a spot as a general assignment reporter for the sports desk.

From there, I got the opportunity to beat write for women's gymnastics, which even included traveling to Toledo, Ohio, for their Big Five Meet. I also covered the end of both the men and women's swim and dive seasons and the preseason start of softball, all while also picking up on things my co-workers may not have been able to get: football breaking news, men's basketball awards, hockey games, etc.

When COVID-19 made its raining debut in Michigan in March 2020, my job as a sports reporter was put on the back burner and I was back to doing the same stuff I had tried so desperately to get away from. I spent my entire summer and fall semester 2020 remotely reporting on public and mental health and safety as we navigated through unprecedented times. I also covered campus and city cultural issues.

It wasn't until late November 2020 when I got the call from the current editor-in-chief. I was going to be one of two women on the men's basketball beat for their 2020-21 campaign. 

I'll admit, when they hung up, I cried.

My original plan was to report on football, but seeing as the season was so iffy until the last minute, I had reluctantly let that dream go. This was my second chance, per say, to make something of myself in the sports writing world. I was gifted this role — after working tirelessly for over a year on things I didn't necessarily always enjoy — and I was told to run with it.

So, I did. I ran my butt off.

Now, mind you, I did not know a single thing about MSU basketball, let alone basketball in general, before I started this position. I remember walking into the Breslin Student Events Center for the first time as a reporter and not just a student or fan. I sat down in the mezzanine platform next to my co-writer, who held the position the season prior as well, so they already had experience and connections, and I exhaled a breath I didn't know I was holding.

It was Nov. 29, 2020, and the Spartans were gearing up to play the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. I was on gamer duty, sick to my stomach as I tried my best to finish the article before the final buzzer sounded like my editor had wanted. Gamers always had to go up immediately, that was the No. 1 rule.

However, in that same moment that I felt sick to my stomach, I felt most alive. The adrenaline of the deadlines weighing on my shoulders and the constant back-and-forth, fast-paced scoring in the game kept me on my toes. That right there, my friend, is passion. Instead of shrinking back, I let it drive me.

When my gamer went up that night, I sat there refreshing the Facebook page for comments, rereading it over and over and over again, so proud of my work. From where I'm at now, that gamer is laughable. Not one of my worst, but also not one of my best. Flatten? Really? For a 10-point deficit? I had a lot to learn.

The pandemic didn't make it easy. Everything was on Zoom. I wasn't allowed to go into the locker rooms to talk to players or Head Coach Tom Izzo face-to-face. I wasn't always allowed to travel to away games, due to different state and university protocols. I wasn't always able to get ahold of players for interviews and often found my requests going under the rug of the sports information director. I wasn't even on the program's email list until the near end of the season.

And on top of the pandemic, I had personal issues to mend.

But, I survived. And I'd do it all again if I had the chance. I owe a big thank you to my co-writer and my editor. Those two put up with me through the highs and lows. I dealt with more than I could chew a lot of the time, and they never failed to coach me through it. Nobody wants to see you succeed more than your teammates, that's for sure.

I'll admit, there are times when I get discouraged, when I think, "am I really good enough to pursue this forever?" and when I completely burnt out.

It's in those moments that I remind myself that on March 11, 2021, I was seated courtside in Lucas Oil Stadium, watching as MSU and Maryland intensely battled to make it into the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals. I remind myself that on Feb. 20, I woke up in a hotel room in Bloomington, Indiana, with my co-writer and got to see my first college basketball arena that wasn't green-and-white themed. I remind myself of the first question I asked Izzo,  and the way he commended me afterward. I remind myself of my first one-on-one with Foster Loyer.

The little things are what make the job worth it.

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