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Whitworth basketball ready for return to court after Northwest Conference gives green light on competition

UPDATED: Wed., Dec. 16, 2020

Whitworth guard Isaiah Hernandez shoots over Whitman’s Robert Colton during the first half of a Northwest Conference game Jan. 21 at Whitworth.  (Colin Mulvany/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Whitworth guard Isaiah Hernandez shoots over Whitman’s Robert Colton during the first half of a Northwest Conference game Jan. 21 at Whitworth. (Colin Mulvany/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

Liam Fitzgerald took two tests on Wednesday.

One was for a religion course, finishing up his semester finals at Whitworth. The other was a COVID-19 test so he – and his teammates – can play basketball games on Friday and Saturday.

As to which he was more nervous about, Fitzgerald said, “Definitely the final,” but, “I think both will be fine.”

The Division III Northwest Conference announced Tuesday that it is giving its teams the go-ahead to play competitive sports again – with the usual caveats.

“The Northwest Conference Presidents’ Council (NWC) has made the decision to resume conference competition and championships after January 1, 2021,” the statement read, “when federal, state, local and NCAA health directives permit.”

That means as long as athletes from Whitworth and Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston return negative tests this week, the two will be allowed to play at 5 p.m. Friday and again at 11 a.m. Saturday at the Whitworth Fieldhouse. The games will count toward LCSC’s record but will be exhibitions for Whitworth. No fans will be allowed to attend.

LCSC is 2-0 with wins over Yellowstone Christian College, another NAIA program, on Dec. 4 and 5.

“Obviously, everyone’s had trials with this pandemic, and our student-athletes, I’ve been really proud of how resilient they’ve been,” Pirates second-year coach Damion Jablonski said. “The main thing (has been) maintaining hope. … To have games on the schedule, that’s provided a huge amount of hope for us.”

Through its national guidance, the NCAA has allowed teams to practice since the fall, when Whitworth’s various programs got back on the field as classes resumed on campus. But teams were required to limit cohort sizes and to keep those cohorts separate.

When the Whitworth men’s basketball team began practicing in October, they were “very abbreviated,” Jablonski said.

Up until a couple of weeks ago, Jablonski said, players were only being tested as a part of the general surveillance Whitworth was doing across its entire student body. They couldn’t run 5-on-5 in practice and had to stay in cohorts and even hold two separate practices.

“But,” he said, “we were able to get our full roster through (testing) a couple weeks ago, and then now we’re doing the same thing leading up to the games.”

Jablonski said he has felt like Billy Beane’s character in the film “Moneyball,” taking calls from various schools as they try to build nonconference schedules on the fly. He said he has been contacted by Division I teams, but he is looking for programs that would be a good fit as he looks to schedule more games.

The goal, he said, would be to play 12 to 15 games this year, including conference matchups.

Those conference matchups are nearly finalized, according to the NWC’s statement Tuesday, which said adjusted schedules for fall, winter and spring sports will be released within the next week, and “the Presidents’ Council continues to support institutional autonomy regarding the decision to participate in intercollegiate athletics.”

Scheduling has been complicated, though, by the different public health guidelines in the nine-team conference’s various jurisdictions.

Four teams – Whitworth, Puget Sound, Pacific Lutheran and Whitman, which doesn’t have a football program – are in Washington, while the other five are in or near Portland.

That Whitworth’s men’s basketball team has been able to practice 5-on-5 recently is an affordance the teams in Oregon haven’t been given, Linfield athletic director Garry Killgore said.

Teams are allowed to condition outside when they can, Killgore said, but gyms and swimming pools are closed there.

To address that imbalance in preparation, the conference plans to have teams play those in their own state first, with the potential that there could be some crossover games later in the winter or early spring and to crown a conference champion.

“That’s the concern I have from a physiological perspective, that they’re ready to go,” Killgore said of Linfield athletes. “Their health and safety comes first. We don’t want to throw them to the wolves right away.

“That’s another reason to let Washington go first. We can’t insert ourselves against teams that’ve been playing for six weeks.”

Two Oregon programs – Lewis & Clark and Willamette – officially canceled their football and men’s and women’s basketball seasons for 2020-21 on Monday “in consideration of restrictions in the state of Oregon and the health and safety of our student-athletes and wider campus and local communities,” according to a joint statement.

That leaves George Fox, Linfield and Pacific hoping to still play those three sports.

But the conference is committed to trying, NWC Commissioner Kimberly Wenger said late last week, before Tuesday’s statement.

“I worry about the student-athlete experience and worry about their health and safety, and we have to make the best decisions we can,” Wenger said. “I’m hopeful we will play something this year, but even getting them back to campus and practicing and (attending) team meetings is still really important, too, for that camaraderie and family. The competition part might not happen in some sports, but we’ll see what happens. There’s a lot of things that are out of our hands.”

At Whitworth, the football team is moving forward with the expectation it will play this winter. Coach Rod Sandberg said the team is aiming to play its first game Feb. 13 at the Pine Bowl against one of the other two in-state NWC teams, Puget Sound or Pacific Lutheran. The other would follow on Feb. 20, then a bye week, and then the Pirates would make return trips to UPS and PLU, he said.

Playing in the winter would certainly be different from a regular late-summer start, when the team sometimes starts practices in 100-degree heat, followed by a stretch of great weather and maybe by some cold at the end, Sandberg said.

Instead, players will start practice in mid-January, coming off winter break. The air and ground are cold. Sandberg said both those factors give him cause for concern about injuries.

“But we’re thankful for what we have,” Sandberg said. “We don’t worry about what we didn’t have.”

If Oregon schools are eventually allowed to play football, there is a chance the conference could include cross-border games in its schedule. But that, like so much of this season, will be in flux and subject to change.

In the meantime, the basketball team, at least, is looking forward to getting back on the court together this weekend after the abrupt end to its 2019-20 season last March.

“I think we’d all want to have a regular season, hopefully,” Fitzgerald said. “Everything’s really day by day.

“I guess we’re just hoping to find games wherever we can, and how many we get is how many we get to work with.”

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