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Head coach Billy Lesesne speaks to a player during a game on Friday, Oct. 2, 2020 at the Jack Turner Soccer Stadium in Athens, Georgia. The Bulldogs defeated the Volunteers 1-0. (Photo/Julian Alexander, jalexander@randb.com)

Georgia soccer began the 2020 season with its best-ever SEC start, going four straight matches unbeaten. Following a strong start to the season, the Bulldogs suffered three straight losses before the regular season was brought to an abrupt end.

Georgia’s regular season was cut short when its season finale against Missouri was canceled due to positive COVID-19 cases. Despite the shortened season, the Bulldogs have grown closer over the course of this year.

“I think, in some ways it has brought us together in a very strange way,” said head coach Billy Lesesne.

Since the start of the season, Georgia soccer has had two coaches and up to eight student-athletes test positive for COVID-19, Lesesne said.

The canceled game ended a regular season that many thought would not happen due to COVID-19 pushing back the start date of fall sports, including soccer.

“It was really hard to, day in and day out, go to practice twice a day and work for a season that potentially couldn’t happen,” said senior defender Caroline Chipman.

The SEC announced the Georgia-Missouri game was canceled one day after it was announced Lesesne tested positive for COVID-19.

While isolated and in quarantine, Lesesne was able to watch practice virtually with cameras set up around Georgia’s practice facility and talk on the phone with assistant coach Robert Lane. At the time, Lane was expected to take over head coaching duties against Missouri.

“I think it’s a challenge from a coaching standpoint,” Lesesne said. “There were also pretty severe headaches, body aches, those type things that made it hard to really sit up and pay attention during a training session.”

Before the Missouri match was canceled, the Bulldogs had no postponements or cancellations in their conference-only schedule. However, other schools in the SEC, such as Alabama, Auburn, LSU and Florida had changes to their schedule due to positive COVID-19 tests and quarantines.

Georgia’s first challenge with coronavirus came as it wrapped up preseason and students began returning to campus in August. The team had positive COVID-19 cases, Lesesne said, but those cases did not impact the start of the 2020 season. To best prevent positive cases, the team instituted rules that normally wouldn’t be in place during a season. These rules included eating outside or taking

food home when at a restaurant, bringing baby wipes to clean their work areas while on campus and wearing

masks.

“The girls have done a great job at following those [rules] and we all know that COVID brings us uncertainties,” said senior Ashley Andersen. “And we can’t control everything and especially this outbreak of all of us, we couldn’t control that at all.”

When the news of the positive cases broke to the team, the practice facility was shut down and players were forced to train on their own in preparation for the SEC tournament in Orange Beach, Alabama.

The Bulldogs opened the tournament against Auburn with several key players missing due to positive tests and subsequent quarantines within the team. With new players making it to the field, Georgia lost the SEC tournament opener 2-1 in double overtime.

“I can’t say a bad word about how they prepared for the week and the way they played the match today,” Lesesne said after the loss. “I am proud of the way they represented the University of Georgia.”

While players who tested positive were isolated from the team throughout the season, coaches and other members of the team stayed in touch. The team had virtual Zoom sessions to discuss practice as players in isolation watched live training.

Members of the team also dropped off food to players in quarantine and helped teammates stay on top of academic work while away from the rest of the team.

“The players really care about each other and care for each other,” Lesesne said. “And that’s for me, the most rewarding thing to see is how they’ve got each other’s back.”