For as much as spring sports were disrupted when NCAA Division III sports shut down in March, fall sports weren’t spared, either.
The latest blow came on Wednesday, when the Presidents Council overseeing Division III decided to cancel fall championships for the 2020-21 season, though the announcement wasn’t a surprise to Tim Demant, the Whitworth athletics director.
“We knew they weren’t gonna move the championships,” Demant said, citing as reasons the cost of such championships and the logistics of selecting dates and sites.
“Obviously you’re always hoping that you have that chance (to win a national championship),” he said, “but sometimes clarity is the next-best thing.”
The Northwest Conference, like some others in Division III, had already decided to shift some fall seasons to the spring, including those for football, men’s and women’s soccer, volleyball and rowing, in an announcement on July 22.
Whitworth’s athletes in those sports – it sponsors all five except rowing – haven’t been together as a team since their seasons ended in the fall of 2019, as their spring seasons, what the NCAA labels as “non-traditional,” were canceled earlier this year as well.
Still, Demant said that the NWC made the decision to shift sports to the spring already anticipating the national championships could be canceled, so there are no plans right now to change course.
The NWC hasn’t changed its stance on its other fall sports – women’s cross country, men’s and women’s golf, and men’s and women’s tennis – which are still in line to play this semester “in accordance with local, state and federal health directives,” according to the NWC statement two weeks ago.
Demant said the conference is already planning to add conference championship playoffs for soccer and volleyball, something it hadn’t previously done.
It all adds up to a very different 2020-21 season, whatever form it eventually takes.
Still, fall coaches at Whitworth said that they see opportunities in this rescheduling and reshuffling of seasons, and that they are trying to focus on what will be possible, rather than what won’t.
“Everything changes,” said women’s soccer coach Bryan Olson. “I didn’t really know there was a month of August for the last 14 years in college soccer.”
Olson had scheduled to start practices on August 10, but the earliest that might happen now, he said, is September 4.
“There’s this bonus month of time,” Olson said. “We’re still asking that question of how to use this time really well, and to say we get to do the very best with what we’ve got.”
In light of the pandemic, the Division III Administrative Committee modified its rules for the 2020-21 year to allow teams to divide their 114 days of team activities between traditional and non-traditional seasons as they see fit.
That means while fall sports teams’ competitions have been postponed by the NWC until the spring, they can conduct a non-traditional training season during the fall.
But there are still many unknowns, including whether the seasons will happen in the spring at all. If they do, another challenge will be how to make available fields and other practice venues when spring, winter and fall sports teams are all potentially trying to play seasons at the same time.
“At this point (the 114 days) also has to include spring competition, so that can be a little tricky to manage,” said Kati Bodecker, Whitworth’s volleyball coach and the assistant athletics director for Compliance and Eligibility, “because as you head into fall and the spring is still unknown, how many do we want to use (in the fall)?”
In the meantime, coaches are trying to figure out how to best utilize their resources.
“Really what a lot of us coaches are doing is we’re sitting and waiting,” football coach Rod Sandberg said. “I’m waiting ’til we get more clarification, and I’m brainstorming: What are some things we can do outside the box?”
Football is in a particular bind because it’s roster is so big, about 130 players, compared to soccer and volleyball teams with rosters of 30 or fewer.
There is also the question for both Olson and Sandberg as they start to map out what practices could look like this fall of whether a soccer or football field counts as one venue or many smaller ones.
“Are they gonna say that they can only be groups of 10 on the entire football field,” Sandberg said, “or are they gonna say we can have 10 different sections on the football field that have (groups of) 10?”
Normally the football coaches split players into cohorts of seven or eight players during fall camp, the emphasis being on character and team building within those small groups, Sandberg said.
But the team also meets in different cohorts – namely as position groups – and many elements of practice see those positions interact at close distances. Those are just some of the challenges Sandberg identified so far, and he said he is eager to learn more from health and athletic officials as to what will be allowed.
The challenge for men’s soccer coach Jeremy Payne is perhaps even more daunting.
Payne was in Spokane in early March for a round of interviews for the job he now holds. During that visit he met with players, administrators and various members of the Whitworth community.
“The following week things started going (into lockdown),” Payne said.
His hire was announced on March 23 and then he “had to quickly turn and make some adjustments,” Payne said. “How do I get involved with the team and start to build relationships?”
Payne still hasn’t officially met in person with the entire men’s soccer team as head coach. He’s not sure whether that will even be allowed to happen this fall.
He has talked with all of his players multiple times during the summer, and in so doing he has gotten to know them individually. But not seeing the team together in person leaves some crucial blanks in his understanding.
“On the Zoom calls it’s more interesting because you’re starting to understand guys and their personalities,” Payne said, “but that’s very different than learning the dynamics between guys on the team. You don’t understand the team dynamics, and that’s been the struggle for me.”
Focus turns to relationships
Still, for as much as coaches haven’t been able to focus on tactics and practice techniques with players, they have been able to spend time building those relationships.
“To have a fall to prepare with our group, usually we thrust right into it with team building over a two-week span. Now we have a whole semester,” Olson said. “We get to take (our) time.”
Another advantage of pushing games to the spring is that freshmen will be better integrated by then, said Payne, who typically sees players make a big jump between their freshman and sophomore years. He credits that to their acclimation to the school in general as well as to the particular players and coaches on their team.
This year freshmen will have more time before their first games to make those other adjustments.
“You see a lot of sophomores break out and start showcasing their abilities and importance to the team,” Payne said. “Physically they’re developing, but they’re getting to know their teammates and coaches better, so they’re more comfortable in Year 2. … I think you’ll see that (for) our freshmen, (the delay will) help them out when we are able to compete.”
Yet considering all the time apart, coaches expect there will be some extra work to do during fall practices in order to get their teams back into peak condition.
“There’s nothing like actually being in a gym and playing live volleyball,” Bodecker said. “It takes a long time to get your body into your sport-specific shape. I think it’s gonna take some time, and almost all of them have not been in a weight room, so there’s that other aspect of strength.”
Weight room access while adhering to social distancing and sanitizing guidelines will be another variable for coaches to figure out – another of many that at this point, they and the entire Whitworth athletics department are working through.
Olson said during this pandemic he has often asked his team a question he learned from Tony Bennett, the former Washington State basketball coach: “What’s your secret of contentment?”
“We’ve asked our players that before COVID. What are the circumstances that will dictate you bringing all of yourself?” Olson said. “Is it playing time? Is it our result? Now we get to step into it as a whole program … is our contentment getting to have a full season in the fall? Now we get to live as something that’s rooted deeper than just our circumstances.”
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