Sun. May 26th, 2024

In March of 2020, the NCAA made a groundbreaking decision to allow athletes whose seasons were affected by Covid-19 the option to extend their college eligibility by another year. Liz Kitley, a fifth year center at Virginia Tech, can still remember the moment she was told the life-altering news.

“I’ll never forget it. I was in our practice facility. It was before my sophomore year, so I’d only played one season, and then my assistant coach came out and was like, Yeah, Liz, everyone gets an extra year.”

It’s been over three years since that moment, and this season’s seniors are the last of the Covid class. This year will be the last time college athletes have to decide between taking that extra year or not. But with the introduction of new NIL rules in the summer of 2021, the decision doesn’t carry the same amount of weight as it did three years ago.

“I think it just changed the way I looked at things,” says Kitley, who initially considered entering the WNBA Draft or venturing overseas after her fourth year at Tech.

For Endyia Rogers, a guard at Texas A&M, NIL was a massive contributing factor in her decision to take that fifth year. Now that Rogers is able to make money while still competing at the college level, she sees her fifth year as an “opportunity to build yourself up financially, saving your money up for what you’re gonna do afterward.”

Because the reality is, most athletes don’t end up going pro after college. For many, this extra year of eligibility is the last opportunity to play the sport that’s been a defining aspect of their lives.

Boo Buie, though, a guard at Northwestern University, says it’s always been about making it to the League.

“My goal as a competitor, as an athlete, is always to make it professionally,” he says. “But halfway through my senior year—we just were having an unbelievable year—I just really wanted to come back.”

After leading his team to the NCAA Tournament, as well as the program record for Big Ten wins, Buie’s hoping for a season to rival the last. That’s one thing every athlete taking a fifth year has in common: a desire to bring a new level of competition to this upcoming season.

“The NBA…it’s not going anywhere,” says USC’s Boogie Ellis. The fifth-year point guard still feels as if he has some unfinished business with the Trojans, and with superstars Bronny James and Isaiah Collier joining the mix, Ellis is in for the long haul. Like many other athletes, the San Diego native decided to take this year to improve his game, making sure that he’s the best version of himself before he enters the NBA draft.

For Rickea Jackson, this season will be her first without having to adjust to a new coaching staff. The Tennessee forward played under three different coaches during her first three seasons at Mississippi State, but after transferring to Tennessee her senior year, she knew that she had to take advantage of the opportunity to stay with a coach who knows her—even if it had only been for one season.

“Having that consistency in my life is something that I’ve craved,” she says, “and, you know, I have it now.”

Photos via Getty Images.

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