Moving on from volleyball wasn't the easiest decision for University of Tennessee at Chattanooga senior Megan Kaufman.
In the end, though, it became the best one for her, and with the Mocs getting a chance to play one match this semester, Kaufman has approached practices with a different level of enthusiasm. She has gone to optional workouts, too, and embraced time with her teammates.
And after Saturday's 2 p.m. home match against Georgia State, the 5-foot-3 defensive specialist and libero from Ohio will put her UTC volleyball career behind her as she works toward completing a degree in nursing — the same field her mother Shelley is in — with an expected graduation date of December 2021.
The COVID-19 pandemic completely changed the landscape of sports at all levels, and in the case of college athletics, there has been quite a bit of disparity in the effects. Some leagues decided to focus on moving all fall sports to the spring semester, some chose to go forward with competition this semester and some are attempting a mix of those approaches.
In the case of the Southern Conference, to which the Mocs belong, league competition was shifted to the second semester of the 2020-21 school year for fall sports — including volleyball — but member programs were given the option of keeping or adding nonconference opponents to play this semester.
The UTC volleyball team's fall schedule has only the visit from the Panthers, who will be opening a schedule that also includes a match at SoCon member Mercer before Sun Belt Conference competition starts. Saturday's match at Maclellan Gym is closed to the public but will be streamed on ESPN+, with links available on the UTC volleyball team's schedule at GoMocs.com.
For Kaufman and fellow seniors Bailey Bennett and Maddie Halsey, it will provide a final chance to compete for the Mocs before focusing on academics. Fifth-year senior Mikaela Gauthreaux has decided to play next semester as part of a team with experience returning and a promising freshman class entering.
"At this point, with everything that we've had thrown our way in the fall, you almost have to see a glass half full or you'll cry, to be honest," Kaufman said. "We had some really big goals for this fall. We were going to do some special things, and I know that this group, the rest of my teammates, are going to do some really special things this spring.
"But sadly I won't be a part of it, so it's bittersweet right now."
So the decision didn't come easy, but it came with perspective. In addition to Kaufman's mother being a nurse, her father Scott is the athletic director at her alma mater, Lakota West in the Cincinnati area, and led the Ohio High School Athletic Association's "return to play" for fall sports.
When the pandemic hit the United States in mid-March and students were sent home, Kaufman and her father went to the family's lake house in the Cincinnati area to quarantine because her mother was busy working at the hospital and there were still questions about the virus. Once more information became available, the family was able to reunite.
That was also when a choice about volleyball had to be made.
"It had to be Megan's decision," Scott said by phone Thursday as the family set forth to Chattanooga for one final match. "I think she weighed the pros and cons and figured as a long-term effect there was a small risk for her and she was willing to do that, and we support that.
"Getting this one last chance to play, I think she's going to be able to walk away with her head held high, with no regrets."
Kaufman has 1,385 digs in her UTC career, which ranks seventh in Mocs history. More importantly, she has a 4.0 GPA and is the only the second player in program history to be twice selected to a CoSIDA all-district academic team. Christina Teter was the other, earning the honor in 2011 and 2012.
Had there been a full season this semester, Kaufman would have likely moved into the top four in digs at UTC. But things change and people adjust, and that's what Kaufman has done.
"I will look back on my team at UTC with just grace," she said. "I'm so thankful for our coaching staff, my teammates, the university athletics department, all the administration and all the day-to-day game-day people. Everyone at Chattanooga has poured into my experience, and I had nothing but gratitude and great things to say about all three and almost four years here.
"The way it ended is bittersweet, for sure. Not the way that I ever imagined 14 years of competitive volleyball coming to an end, but I'll look back and be really grateful for the opportunity I had to play here."