Be it at the high school, college or professional level, one of the things you’re likely to hear from any athletic administrator is that “no two days are ever the same.” But, as recent events demonstrate, despite their familiarity with having to be adaptable, even the best, most experienced athletic supervisors can be caught by surprise. The recent COVID-19 outbreak has put local high school leaders in an unprecedented position, forced to deal with a variety of rapidly-changing predicaments, including the closure of all campuses and the cancellation of spring sport seasons.
Sixth-year Torrey Pines Athletic Director Charlenne Falcis-Stevens (she has been at the school 15 years overall), who is also the head track & field coach and teaches three classes, including a pair of chemistry courses, is one of those on the front line.
Her athletic program, which has participation from well over 50% of the school’s 2,500 enrolled students, is one of the best in San Diego County. Since Falcis-Stevens took the reins of the department in 2014-15, the Falcons have captured 48 CIF section and eight CIF State championships.
A mother of two boys (Zachary, 16, and Matthew, 12), she’s is a graduate of UC Davis and a four-year member of the Aggie track & field team. With Torrey Pines’ now in its fourth week of online teaching as the new norm, Falcis-Stevens took time to share her thoughts on the state of her program, the multitude of items that have needed addressing and what a typical day is like for her and fellow prep leaders in these atypical times.
Q—Has the current situation surrounding COVID-19 been the most difficult challenge you’ve faced in your tenure as athletic director?
I would have to say, “yes,” because this is the most surreal situation I’ve ever encountered. There have certainly been other challenging circumstances, but this current situation affects all aspects of our lives as we know it. It affects every athletic team, especially our 11 in-season spring sports. Other teams were in the midst of finalizing the winter season with banquets and the celebration of their accomplishments while fall sports are already in the planning stages for their 2020 seasons.
My main concern involves the mental health of our student-athletes as they deal with the abrupt ending of their athletic seasons. Their day-to-day structure has changed drastically and they are doing their best to cope and adjust to a temporary way of life. I know the coaches are constantly connecting with them to give them the support and hope that they need.
Q—For you, what was the most trying aspect of the pandemic’s sudden emergence as an all-encompassing topic?
Going from being immersed into the spring season with games and practices every day to all events grinding to a halt and not being able to do anything about it. In a setting where there have been so many questions and a lot of uncertainty, I try to keep coaches as updated as possible so they can share information with their teams and plan for the next season of their respective sports.
It’s tough being in a situation that has so much impact on our program but not being in charge. I feel like my biggest role is to just be a support system for our coaches and teams, passing along best practices and getting prepared so that we can hit the ground running when we get past this.
Q—What are some issues you’ve had to deal with that the average person might not think about?
Some of the things that we had to initially deal with were quickly contacting transportation and officials’ associations with game cancellations—also communicating specifics to all coaches regarding school procedures and the CIF’s no physical contact period while schools are closed. Because of the fluid nature of the decision-making process, we were not only adapting to a new setting, but developing contingency plans for several potential scenarios that were being discussed. Currently, there are still more questions than answers because we don’t know how long the stay-at-home order and social distancing will be in effect.
Q—With the current social distancing guidelines, what is a typical day like for you now?
I’ve now become a stay-at-home mom, something I never thought I’d become. A typical day is still trying to balance athletics with teaching. I’m spending more time at home learning the technology (Google Hangouts or Google Classroom) to support my Torrey Pines students in a distance learning environment while still closing out the winter/spring seasons and planning for the upcoming fall season.
In addition, I’m helping my boys stay organized as they transition into distance learning as well. It’s been interesting watching them maneuver through the expectations of their different teachers who are also learning on the fly.
Q—How often and in what format do you communicate with the school’s administrative staff, your coaching staff and student-athletes?
I’m blessed to have an incredible and supportive administration along with experienced and knowledgeable coaches. Everyone is doing a great job of adapting to the current situation and being supportive of the athletes and parents.
I speak regularly throughout the week with my assistant principal, Michael Santos, to keep him updated on any concerns regarding athletics. I try to touch base with my coaches via email, phone or text as well, forwarding updated information and getting feedback from them. We also recently held our first virtual coaches’ meeting to have a face-to-face check in and share information.
It’s important for both sides to have that type of video gathering. Being able to observe the non-verbal cues they communicate makes a big difference for me as far as being able to know whether or not they’re understanding the messages and expectations I’m trying to impart.
I also enjoy just being able to connect with them and I think they feel the same way. Everyone is doing what they need to do and sometimes above and beyond to keep connections with student-athletes alive.
Q—What are the key factors in terms of getting high school athletic programs back on the fields, gyms and pools?
The plan is to prepare for the fall season as normal until I hear otherwise. This means getting game and practice schedules from coaches, updating the coaching staff (possible virtual interviews), reserving facilities for all sports, submitting transportation and referee requests.
I think the biggest struggle for families will be completing the athletic clearance paperwork. One of the requirements for all athletes is to have a up-to-date physical on file which is good for one year. With our current situation, the healthcare providers are impacted and I don’t want to cause more strain on that system. We usually have our athletics physicals night fundraiser in June and hopefully that can still happen. I’m hoping to also have additional physicals nights in July and August so athletes can get cleared and can tryout and participate in their sport.
Q—So, you said that COVID-19 is the most demanding thing you’ve confronted at Torrey Pines but alluded to others. Is there anything that’s come close to being as crazy as what’s happened the last month or so?
Nothing, really. But there are certainly concerns to deal with in any year. I would match our staff and student-athletes with any program in the section, but no matter how vigilant and pro-active you are, there are sometimes going to be situations that need addressing—individual or team behavioral issues, interpreting gray areas in terms of policies and procedures or CIF sanctions, to name a few.
We’ve been fortunate to have had a tremendous amount of success with minimal complications while keeping the CIF’s Pillars of Character, which revolve around respect and responsibility, at the forefront. Winning is important but not the only priority.
Q—What was the toughest single thing you’ve had to do during the coronavirus ordeal?
Communicating with my track & field team and coaches that their season had been canceled. Even with the rain, we were lucky to have a few early meets. Many of our kids have put in the work and effort in the summer and fall to prepare for this season. I’m sad for the seniors since this would have been the culmination of their four years as track & field athletes. It’s also hard for the juniors and underclassmen who were hoping for the opportunity to improve their marks and impress colleges.
Q—At Torrey Pines, what do you expect the residual effect of the last few months will be on your program?
Our school motto is simply “We are TP.” I believe strongly in the athletic culture at Torrey Pines. It’s much more than going to high school here and being a member of an extracurricular program. There’s pride in being a Torrey Pines student-athlete and playing the sport(s) that they love for their school, coaches and teammates.
There’s also a desire and expectation to strive to do their best and constantly improve in everything they do and this comes with the support of our district, parents and community. Our athletes and coaches understand and embrace this culture. I believe the commitment to those principles is firmly established and will be instrumental in returning our program to the high level we have been accustomed to reaching.
Q—As a leader and a person, what are things you will take forward from this experience when a sense of normalcy returns?
The compassion and fortitude that I see from our administration, coaches, parents and athletes is absolutely amazing. Everyone is staying positive and trying to encourage each other in little ways. A text, an email or a drive-by at a student’s home is a meaningful interaction. Everyone is making the effort to check-in and say “hi.” Students are working out together virtually which is awesome. I know we will be okay and come out of this stronger!