Maddie Elwell never envisioned her senior year starting like this.
Elwell, a Wissahickon graduate and Ambler native, and the rest of her teammates on the Vanderbilt women’s soccer team finally began their 2020 season with a Sunday 3-2 victory over Kentucky.
For the dynamic midfielder, getting to that point was a trying path that brought a spring shutdown, a bout with COVID-19, adjusting to life in a campus bubble and an extended preseason.
The payoff came Sunday, but Elwell knows it’s anything but a guarantee.
“I’m a nervous type of excited,” Elwell said in a phone interview on Friday. “While I know it will be so different, we don’t have the locker room, we don’t have any fans allowed to attend, we can’t prepare for games the same way that we have, but I’m just excited to get out there and see where our team is at. I’m nervous, but I’m excited and I’m anxious.”
Elwell’s time at Vanderbilt has gone hand-in-hand with the Commodores rise into a contender in the SEC and an emerging presence at the national level. Individually, the left-footed winger was coming off her best season in Nashville as a junior where she led Vandy with 10 assists and earned second team All-SEC honors.
Like the rest of the sports world, Elwell’s routine came to a screeching halt in March when the spread of COVID-19 caused shutdowns nationwide. The Commodores went from thinking they would continue their spring training and exhibition schedule to being sent home from campus to finish the semester in under a week.
For Elwell, not only was she forced to return home to Ambler without much warning, but she lost out on an invite to a United States U-23 national team camp in March when the pandemic caused it to be cancelled.
“It was hard for me because I like moving around and not even just the sports, I like being around the rest of the team,” Elwell said. “I spent the last few summers on campus so I would be training with the team and not by myself. Trying to keep as much normalcy around me and my teammates was all that I focused on.”
Elwell had spent the previous two summers in Nashville, playing in a college league and working an internship prior to her junior season and opted to return to campus in June to get a jumpstart on her training. She and a few teammates who had also come back early took up training sessions at a local park until one day, Elwell woke up feeling not right.
Sensing something was amiss, Elwell scrapped a planned trip back to Montgomery County and immediately got tested. The outcome was a positive result for COVID-19, a two-week quarantine and effects that would linger into the start of Vanderbilt’s preseason.
“How it happened, I’m not very sure but luckily I was not affected as much as other people have been affected,” Elwell said. “The morning I woke up with symptoms I said ‘I’m getting checked right now, right here.’ I was very light-headed, I lost taste, lost smell and I was worried about coming back to training. I was so nervous, I had been working out every day and now I wasn’t able to work out or do anything.”
While her symptoms didn’t get more severe, there were carryover effects that had the elite college athlete feeling anything but as her team started to prepare for its season.
“Preseason started a month later and while I’d been working out, I wasn’t anywhere close to what I had been working toward,” Elwell said. “We were just doing conditioning, we weren’t even able to work with a ball yet and I couldn’t get through a couple runs without having to step to the side and start puking everywhere. It took a huge toll on me physically and mentally at that point because all I could think was ‘what does this mean?’
“We had goals we were trying to work toward and I wasn’t anywhere close to what I wanted to be and felt like I would show up and not be able to do anything.”
Luckily for Elwell, the residual sickness lasted just over a week and she felt healthy for the remainder of the team’s seven-week preseason but she admitted to feeling “trapped” when her return was stifled.
Battling the virus wasn’t the only challenge that taxed Elwell mentally and physically since returning to Vanderbilt. All of the university’s students are under strict guidelines for the semester, which for the athletic teams means living on campus with virtual classes, take-out meals and limits on group sizes outside of training.
Normally, the NCAA women’s soccer season kicks off the last weekend in August. With the few leagues that have opted to play a fall season only playing truncated schedules, that’s meant elongated preseasons and in Vanderbilt’s case, it’s been seven weeks.
“The mood of the team has wavered a lot just because this is taxing on your body and we didn’t even know if we’d get a first game,” Elwell said. “As soon as the SEC came out with the schedule, it gave us the reassurance we needed to keep going.”
Elwell said the team’s coaching staff has done well to manage the training environment, mixing in days of high intensity with days of more recovery-based work and the Commodores have held a couple inter-squad scrimmages to simulate game action. It’s new ground for everyone involved and trying to prepare for a season with limited interaction and stringent safety precautions has asked a lot.
Routines are normal for college athletes, but it’s still a major adjustment to what the new routine is during a pandemic.
“One slip-up can automatically take away all the hard work you put in and that’s a very hard realization,” Elwell said. “The things that were so normal, it’s a hard realization that there is a new normal and you have to take those regulations seriously. If you’re not being serious, you can put other people at risk and that’s just not fair to them.”
With so few teams playing this fall, the NCAA opted to move championship competition for fall sports to the spring. The SEC plans to have each team play eight regular season games, with each team then getting a minimum of two games at the league tournament in Alabama.
The NCAA also made the unprecedented move to grant all fall athletes an extra year of eligibility whether their teams play in the fall, spring or both. For Elwell, who put herself on the map as a pro prospect last season, it is an opportunity.
Her focus is on the coming fall schedule, but Elwell said she is planning to use a fifth year to pursue a Masters degree while also exploring the possibility of playing professionally and opting out of the 2020 season wasn’t something she considered.
“My mindset was if I’m not here playing, I don’t know what I’d be doing because this has been one of the only things that’s been a consistent for me in these times,” Elwell said. “I realized ‘this isn’t how I want to go out,’ I didn’t want to opt out if the SEC was playing and come back after not playing for a year.
“Once the NCAA announced the extra year, I saw it as a way to get more schooling, come back and compete hopefully in a way more normal environment and create the senior year I’d love to go out on but also still be around the team and do this now.”
The Commodores will be looking to Elwell to do what she did so well last fall by creating chances. While the winger only had one goal in 2019, a gravity-bending strike against LSU, her 10 assists tied for 22nd nationally and she tied for second in the SEC.
A primary corner kick taker, a free kick option and a skilled crosser from out wide, Elwell has a plethora of ways to set up goals but like most players, needed a couple seasons at the college level to show them off. After making a concerted effort to narrow her focus on the field between sophomore and junior year, the Wissahickon product saw the payoff in 2019.
“For me, trying to find that balance is huge because you can lay your body on the line but if you’re not being smart about it, you won’t have as much of an impact as you want,” Elwell said. “That came to light last year and it’s something important I’m trying to keep going this year. Getting called up to the national team camp only to have it cut due to COVID was a game-changer for me because it told me I had to go out and do the same thing this year.”
Elwell knows there’s no guarantee the fall slate of games will be played to completion, so she’s simply trying to make the most of the opportunity for however long it lasts. The magnitude of the chance to be on the field this fall has hit close to home too, as her younger sister Lauren is a freshman on Delaware’s women’s soccer team, which isn’t playing a fall season.
The past six months have tested Elwell in ways she never imagined and while it’s not the senior year she expected, it has made the reward of Sunday’s opener that much more rewarding.
“There are not a lot of schools right now training or playing or even allowed to be on campus, so I’m grateful for the opportunity and everything the SEC has done to give us as much of a season as we can get,” Elwell said. “With the game Sunday, I’m just itching to play again and get back to that sense of competing and normalcy that everyone has been looking forward to.