t’s an unusual Sunday in Berkeley. There’s a layer of mugginess in the air formed by the combination of near 90-degree heat and a brief showering of rain.
Willard Park, while typically bustling on a Sunday amid the COVID-19 pandemic, has a sparse population as folks avoid the wet grass. While players usually have to patiently wait for one of the two tennis courts to open, they are empty aside from the puddles of water this particular weekend.
The courts remain empty until Christian Gomez, a redshirt sophomore on the Cal men’s soccer team, takes to the court. He arrives without a tennis racket, a tennis ball or even a partner to play with. He comes to the damp tennis court with just his soccer ball and himself.
After some time, Gomez is joined by two teammates, redshirt freshman Tate Dolan and junior Ian Lonergan. They pass the ball and try to dribble past one another. On this wet tennis court, the three teammates keep their love for soccer alive, despite the rain, pandemic and postponement of their season.
“For a while, before the Pac-12 made their decision, we were all pretty scattered — no one really trained with anyone,” said Gomez, one of the squad’s forwards. “But now that the Pac-12 made their decision, we just decided that we should play small pickup games occasionally a couple times a week, just to get our legs moving and just so we can bond because we haven’t seen each other for months.”
The seemingly unusual scene is becoming more and more common nowadays, apart from the rain aspect. The athletes find themselves playing, in some form, to keep their soccer skills and spirits strong.
“We’ve been playing futsal (on the tennis court) because none of the fields in Berkeley are open for us to train on,” Lonergan said. “Or going to the park, and we’ll just keep the ball up in the air between the six of us. That’s more like ‘Let’s get out of the house, let’s have a little bit of fun with the boys and also get some good touches in.’ ”
ong before Gomez and Lonergan swapped tennis courts for Edwards Stadium, they began their soccer careers a few towns apart in Southern California as young kids itching to let their energy out on the field.
“I started playing soccer the day I could pretty much walk, so I was probably like 4, starting to kick the ball around,” Gomez said.
As Gomez and Lonergan grew older, they remained captivated by the game. For Lonergan, that meant casting aside the other sports he was playing, including basketball, baseball and football, in order to fully commit to soccer.
By the time Lonergan was in high school, his dedication to soccer took on another meaning. As he continued to play at the Los Angeles Galaxy Academy and traveled frequently, Lonergan regularly missed school and ultimately enrolled in an online high school that the Galaxy had started.
“Probably for the last eight years, I haven’t had any breaks from soccer — it’s been all year round, especially when I was playing with LA Galaxy,” Lonergan said. “For me, it’s kind of hard to step away from it, even if it’s for only a few months. … It’s almost like a whole lifestyle change for me.”
While the postponement of the season is undoubtedly unwelcome news, the players are trying to make the best of the situation this fall.
“They’ve been super positive, and they’ve tried to make the best of what they can out of a difficult circumstance,” said Cal head coach Kevin Grimes. “The focus, now, is not on what has just happened, but how do we adjust from it? (We need to) make sure the players all get themselves in a good academic mind frame first and foremost for the fall semester, and work with our academic advisers and their GSIs and professors.”
Even with school and individual and small-group training, the players have more time on their hands than ever before. They still long for the ability to play on a full field, but Gomez and Lonergan are finding fun in old hobbies.
“It’s definitely a challenge adapting to it, but it’s good for people to have these challenges in their life and have to look at things differently,” Lonergan said. “Because at the end of the day, a sport only takes you so far in life, and if you don’t find other ways to be happy, then, in the end, you’re not doing it right because there should be other things that make you happy.”
Lonergan and his teammates are certainly finding those joys, whether it be through art, guitar, surfing or just playing casually with one another at the local parks.
“You’ve got three of them, amongst three different classes, out playing together on a tennis court after the rain,” Grimes said. “You’re a soccer junkie — you will find a place to play soccer, wherever it is. It can be an alley, a tennis court, a racquetball court. … You don’t need much, and I guess that’s why it’s the world’s game because it doesn’t take a whole lot to play.”
The pandemic has prompted changes, but soccer has yet to be completely sidelined in Berkeley thanks to Lonergan, Gomez and their teammates’ unceasing love and commitment to the “world’s game.”