Freshmen begin college athletics after missing senior season


Freshman tennis player Cody Neal lost his spring season to COVID-19. He has not played a game since May 2019.

Cody Neal has not played an official tennis match since May 2019. The freshman Webster University tennis player will have to wait for next year’s spring season, but there are no guarantees of a season.

Neal missed his senior high school tennis season at Rockwood Summit High in Fenton, Missouri, due to COVID-19. The team only got in a few practices before the shutdown hit.

“They said we might end up going back after a couple weeks,” Neal said. “But, of course, COVID persisted, and we got nothing else besides that.”

Fast forward to Sept. 17 as fall sports are not played at Webster. Neal maintained a hopeful outlook for next February.

Not all freshmen athletes came to Webster without any playing time in 2020. Softball player Shelbi Patterson played for a travel team in the summer after her spring season was cancelled.

Patterson, who graduated from Christopher High School in Christopher, Illinois, said the only places her summer team could play were Cape Girardeau and Farmington, Missouri. 

Those games proved important, she said, to get in motion for college softball even though she had already secured a spot on Webster’s softball team before the spring. Neal faced a more complicated search for college tennis as he did not commit before the spring season.

Neal said Head Webster Tennis Coach John Black told him he would go to one of Neal’s matches in the spring. After the cancellations, Neal did not have any recruiting videos or matches to play to show his talent. 

That did not ruin his shot at playing at the next level. Neal won the St. Louis Gateway Tennis tournament in the 16-year-old age group his junior high school season. He said that helped show his ability on the court. Neal also gave tennis lessons at Westborough Country Club while in high school.

Two Webster women’s tennis players practice on Sept. 22. Players like freshman Cody Neal missed their senior season of high school. Photo by Logan Nguyen.

Neal had more to focus on than just finding a college to play at. He had to find a way to keep his skills sharp. Neal had to focus on conditioning, he said. 

Neal upped how many miles he ran each day to make up for lost time. The treadmill in his basement gave him the ease of getting in miles without leaving the house. He said he included lightweight exercises and flexibility training as well. 

Neal said he missed over 30 matches due to COVID-19. 

Fall practices have not slowed down despite the coronavirus still looming. Neal described the difficulty of practicing while always wearing a mask and socially distancing.

“Coach has been taking it a little bit lighter on us so that we can adapt to the mask and get familiar with wearing it,” Neal said. 

Freshman baseball player Nico Cristelli faces an additional challenge on top of wearing a mask during practice. As a catcher, he trains with a helmet on along with the mask. 

Cristelli, who graduated from Pueblo East High School in Pueblo, Colorado, said the mask makes it more difficult to train but does not prevent him from getting the necessary reps in. He said he takes a breather from the helmet and mask sometimes by socially distancing from the other players on the field to catch some fresh air. 

Patterson said she holds onto hope that she and her teammates will get the chance to put their offseason work to use for games next spring.

“We are all very excited to be back on the field and to start building bonds among our new teammates and coaches,” Patterson said. 

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