• Photo courtesy of Andrew Worcester

Hesperia boys basketball coach Andrew Worcester (center, kneeling) meets with his team during a timeout against Lakeview this season. On top of his coaching duties, Worcester is in nursing school and his wife is a nurse, giving his family a close perspective of the COVID-19 pandemic.

While many people have gotten a crash course in COVID-19 lingo over the past few months, most of us at least have the luxury of thinking about other things when it’s time to do our own jobs.

That’s not the case for Hesperia boys basketball coach Andrew Worcester and his wife Kristen, who each work in the medical field and have been dealing with the ramifications of the pandemic every day.

Andrew is in nursing school at Muskegon Community College, and his day job is as an ER tech. Kristen is a nurse, working in an administrative role. Less than 24 hours after Hesperia’s season came to an end with a district semifinal loss to Pine River, the MHSAA halted the state basketball tournaments to combat the spread of COVID-19. The Worcesters’ day jobs were set to get a lot more complicated.

Andrew was in the midst of the clinical portion of his instruction — in layman’s terms, the job-shadow portion — when COVID-19 struck and put other matters aside. Worcester’s clinicals were transitioned to online courses. He said he’s just recently been able to return to at least some in-person clinical instruction.

Worcester, originally from Pittsboro, N.C., played Division I basketball at The Citadel before serving in the U.S. Army after college, rising to the rank of specialist (SPC) and working as a medic. He said that all along, he was training to ultimately work in the medical field.

“That was my inspiration,” Worcester said. “I definitely wanted to be in the medical field. When I went to sign up, I asked for a job that’d be related to combat and in the medical field. They presented me with options, and so being a medic was what I chose.”

Worcester left the Army in early 2017 for family reasons; he and Kristen have three sons, whose ages are 11, four and two.

Sports fans likely first heard about the coronavirus in late February or early March, when the possibility of events being postponed or played without fans was first discussed. Worcester said he first got word that a virus could potentially be a factor stateside not long before that.

“We heard that there could be a virus that was coming, that was unknown to us,” Worcester said. “There were many patients presenting with flu-like symptoms and we couldn’t figure out why it was presenting itself in so many different ways. A lot of the respiratory distress was linking it all together. It seemed as though a lot of routes were being tried, antibiotics and things of that nature, and it just wasn’t working.”

Indeed, the flu season hit the area hard. Several West Michigan D League athletic events were postponed or outright canceled during the winter because of a lack of available players, and a few schools in the area briefly closed because of mass illness at one point. While Worcester is obviously not in a position to speculate how much of that might have been a then-unknown outbreak of the coronavirus, he does wonder if the two items are related.

“The flu comes and goes every year and it has an impact, but not as great an impact as we had this year,” Worcester said. “This was the first time schools had to close down because of such an outbreak of what we thought was the flu. Looking back, it’s easy to connect the dots and think maybe it was an exposure. At the time, no one was protecting themselves with social distancing. To our knowledge and to our reports, most of the information states that it wasn’t reported until later on that the virus was exposed during those months. It’s hard to really state that it is connected, but it’s easy, if you look at the results, to assume that it’s connected.”

Since the virus hit, life has been more complicated for so many people, and the Worcesters certainly are among them. Since Kristen is in an administrative role in her work as a nurse, she wasn’t on the front lines of the coronavirus battle, but she did have to work, and the family sent their nanny home to prevent the spread of the virus. That left Andrew to complete his schoolwork at home with three young boys. It’s easy to imagine how difficult that was.

Worcester said even for those he was in school with who didn’t have families, having to do their clinicals over video chat or e-mail made things more complicated.

“It’s a different type of learning, trying to absorb that much information,” Worcester said. “If you can’t receive feedback immediately (because of) working remotely, it’s hard to understand what you’re trying to digest, versus having your face-to-face lectures at school with your instructors.”

Kristen, meanwhile, although she hasn’t been working the front lines, has felt a pull to do so; after all, as she said, the idea of going into medicine is to help people. She said she found herself envious when some co-workers took temporary contracts to go to New York City and help out at the height of its outbreak, although having a family made such a move unfeasible for her.

“I came out of working in the ICU, and I would have loved to have the ability to go back to the front line,” Kristen said. “But then, you need to keep your family safe, so you just continue to do what you do. I think you have a pull, as a nurse, to be on the front lines working.”

Because of the nature of her job, Kristen has taken extra precautions: She goes to and returns from work in street clothes, only wearing her scrubs at her job. Even at work, things changed.

“It completely changed the way we did health care for a period of time,” Kristen said. “We had to make drastic modifications to the way we do things. We had specific entrances (to go in). We had no visitors. We’re just now starting to ramp up visitors, very slowly. The way we test patients (changed). We wear masks everywhere. The (personal protective equipment), we have to wear now, as a standard rule.”

Andrew has not been directly dealing with COVID-19 patients, either; nursing students haven’t been thrust into that world. But his professional life is far different in the new reality as well. He said that his fellow students go to their clinical instructions knowing that at any point, they might again be affected by the pandemic.

While there are obvious differences between the two, Andrew said the current climate in the field evokes some memories of his time in the Army.

“The dangers are different, but the results are similar,” Andrew said. “For anyone who’s never been in a situation where you’re making a decision to put yourself at risk and your family at risk, it creates a lot of fear and anxiety.”

Worcester’s work as the Hesperia basketball coach can pale in comparison to the realities he and his wife currently face, but he hasn’t let up on that job either. One unfortunate side effect of the pandemic is that it stopped the Panthers from putting in a lot of team-focused fundamental work that Worcester believes could have closed some of the experience gap his team faces against most of their competition — a gap that was chiefly responsible for the team’s winless record this season.

In lieu of those activities, Worcester, like many other coaches, has done the best he can. The team has been in contact virtually, sharing various workouts and basketball drills that players can do on their own or in smaller groups, as well as conditioning workouts. He singled out River Montague as a player who’s taken advantage of those things; Montague informed his coach recently that he’s dropped 13 pounds and feels much quicker. Riley Taylor, a JV player who was pulled up to varsity for the districts in March, is another player Worcester had looked forward to working with this summer.

“For some, it’s worked great when you have that personal motivation and self-discipline, but it’s hindered by them not being able to be all in one place and making sure they’re doing the work,” Worcester said. “To me, it does make me feel behind the 8-ball as far as the individual improvement that I’d foreseen this summer.”

Worcester said that with the recent decision by the MHSAA to allow schools to hold outdoor workouts as long as safety protocols are followed, he’s been in contact with football coach Doug Bolles about the best way to get athletes together for work. That said, there’s only so much a basketball team can do in an outdoor workout.

“For me, it really puts restrictions on what I can do,” Worcester said. “The only thing I can do at this point is make sure they’re doing the individual skills and workouts for basketball at home. If they don’t have a goal down, I’ve given them some things they can do as far as improving their handles, dribbling, footwork, those agility skills.

“From what I know right now, the last meeting we had, we’re not going to use the (indoor) facilities until we go into the next phase (of the Michigan Safe Start Plan). And it’s just a waiting game, which really hurts.”

The status of the high school sports season, and indeed of high school itself, remains uncertain in 2020-21. It’s a lot for teenagers to handle. The twin emotions of the motivation the players have to get better and the uncertainty that exists regarding their coming season are colliding, Worcester said.

“They’re motivated,” Worcester said. “They’ve expressed that they want to play. They want to get in the gym, get stronger, work on their individual and team skills. But that anxiety is kind of overrunning that motivation. It’s hard for them right now. As a high school kid, you can only see what’s in front of you. It’s hard for them to see what’s down the line.”