Rachel Jones is a junior midfielder for the University of North Carolina women’s soccer team. UNC, as part of the ACC, is playing soccer this fall while much of the rest of the country waits for spring. Jones spoke with JWS about the unique situation and what it’s been like to be a student-athlete in the time of COVID-19. 

The NCAA has said that it will allow for championships in the spring, and that the games you’re playing now will count toward that. What is the team’s plan for making that work? 

We haven’t really gotten many details, but I did ask our Director of Operations the other day if we would be able to go home for winter break and he said, “100 percent.” Once the season is done in the fall, it’s just going to go back to normal. We will just come back whenever the semester starts in the spring. Even if we can play games, it wouldn’t be until February so we would still have an extended pre-season to be able to ratchet things up again.

What do you think about the ACC’s decision to go ahead with fall sports now that you are about a month into the season?

I’m really grateful for it just from a mental health sense. I think everybody was in a tough space when we were trying to figure out if we were going to have a season or if we were going to be able to play with our seniors again. Also, the protocols that they have set in place have really given us an opportunity to do what we love while staying safe. We’re getting tested three times a week, so it’s really unlikely that we’ll play and then figure out later, “Oh, we played with someone that was positive.”

Has it been difficult to stay focused on the season given everything going on in the rest of the country?

Yeah, this has definitely been the hardest season since I’ve been here at UNC. Everything going on is just draining in general and being in season is draining itself. Everybody on our team is in a tough place and we’re really having to put our arms around each other and push each other through. We’ve been in classes since the first week of August and we’ve only had one day off. Everything just adds up. I think we’ve done a really good job of hitting the field, walking across those lines, and letting everything else fade away. We enjoy being together and we let soccer be our escape from everything else.

Your team is undefeated so far and ranked No. 1 in the country, which is awesome and kind of no surprise given how historically good UNC soccer is. What has allowed you to come out with such a fast start amidst all that’s going on?

I think it’s really a testament to our core values as a team. We have 13 core values that we try to live by and one of them is that you always have control of your attitude. I think we’re really prepared for this situation because of how Anson [Dorrance] has taught us to deal with whatever comes our way. We know that we always have our team to help us. We have really good team chemistry, so nobody feels like they’re going through it on their own.

I know you said you were super excited to get the chance to play this year, but did you have any personal hesitations about playing in the beginning?

Before the ACC came out with their protocols, some people were a little sketched out. We had decided from day one that if we were going to go through with this, we were going all in. We have to be in a bubble because Anson is high risk and his family is high risk, too. We knew that we couldn’t take any chances with this. We had to decide from day one that we weren’t going to see anybody outside of our team. And if we did, we were going to have to be masked, six feet apart and outside.

At the beginning, we were scared that other teams weren’t going to take it as seriously as us. But once the ACC came out with their protocols, those feelings of nervousness went away and we were just excited to get some games in.

Anson Dorrance is a coaching legend. What has he done amidst all the external factors to keep this team calm and focused on their goals?

Throughout the summer, we had weekly team meetings with him. That was really nice because we obviously hadn’t seen each other since March and we started to feel like a team again. He kept us in the loop and he made sure that we kept our eye on the prize. He can’t control a pandemic, obviously, but he made sure that if we got to play, we were ready. He didn’t let us slack off at all. And then, with all of the racial injustice stuff, he did a really good job having conversations as a team immediately and making sure that those conversations have been sustained. With all of the outside factors, I think he did a really good job addressing them and not letting anything go unsaid.

How has dealing with all of the chaos leading up to this season given you any perspective on the rest of your playing career? 

First of all, it really made me realize that I am an upperclassmen now. I think when you normally go from sophomore to junior, you don’t really feel like anything is different. But when we had our spring season taken away from us and when we were sent home, it made me realize that I’m not always going to be here. I have to make the most of my time here and just embrace every aspect of it, and enjoy it as much as I can.

How has the team adjusted to playing without Lotte Wubben-Moy, Lois Joel, and Alessia Russo, all of whom signed with English clubs instead of coming back to the States? 

Well, that’s another way the pandemic has affected us. Players from England had to decide whether they wanted to take the chance and stay here without knowing if we would even have a season, or if they should bet on themselves and try to start their professional career early. Anson told them to bet on themselves — he really thought that they were ready to start their professional careers. And as you can see, Alessia scored her first goal in her first start. It was tough for us to lose them, for sure. But I think it shows just the depth of this program. We’re never dependent on a few players, we’re a team.

I saw that a couple freshmen players have earned starting roles at UNC. Have any of these players really surprised you?

With Alessia, Lois and Lotte leaving, it opened up opportunities for other players to earn playing time. A lot of players have come through and made the most of that opportunity, and we are really appreciative and proud of them. We have three or four freshmen who are starting and absolutely killing it right now. We love every single one of them and we’re so glad that they all came.

I know this is still a few years away, but do you have personal goals of playing professionally once you graduate or even prior to graduation?

Yes, I definitely want to try and play in the NWSL.