Noses are swabbed. Temperatures are checked. Fingers are crossed.
When Eastern Washington players and coaches get their usual coronavirus tests, they know that one positive result can bring on a series of repercussions they’ve earnestly been working to avoid.
Outside of the inherent guilt of contracting the virus and putting the team in a precarious situation, players are dismissed for days to quarantine, games are canceled or postponed and money-making games are off the shelf.
Without live fans, teams are forced to create their own energy.
Fighting an invisible enemy has been an arduous task.
“It’s takes a mental toll on us,” Eagles sophomore Jacob Groves said. “But I think we’re a strong mental team. We’re getting through it.”
EWU (1-4) has experienced a gamut of pandemic-fueled emotions in a nonconference slate ranked the 19th hardest in the country by haslametrics.com.
It’s been a whirlwind three weeks.
- Two positive coronavirus tests – one which turned out to be a false negative – led to the Eagles postponing their Nov. 25 opener at defending Pac-12 champion Oregon.
- Days later, due to a single positive test – point guard Ellis Magnuson was positive and missed two games – and contract tracing, the Eagles were without five scholarship players in a down-to-the-wire 71-68 loss at Washington State (5-0).
- Two days later, EWU’s home opener against Montana Tech was canceled after the NAIA program had a coronavirus outbreak of its own.
- Its Big Sky Conference doubleheader at Northern Arizona slated for Dec. 3 and 5 was also postponed to this weekend.
- The Eagles scrambled to find a game that week and Arizona obliged, giving them three days to prepare for the Pac-12 power. Mirroring its loss at WSU, EWU led much of the second half before falling 70-67 to the Wildcats (now 5-0) in Tucson, Arizona.
- Just before tip of the Arizona game, EWU agreed to face Oregon two days later in Eugene, ultimately falling 69-52 to the physically superior Ducks (4-1).
- Shortly before EWU was set to fly from Eugene to Las Vegas to face UNLV on Dec. 8, the Runnin’ Rebels (1-4) had a positive test and canceled the game.
- The Eagles got on the phone with NAIA power College of Idaho and set a home opener in Cheney. EWU rolled to a 80-54 win.
- EWU’s game at West Coast Conference power Saint Mary’s on Tuesday went smoothly for the Eagles other than the final result. The Gaels (7-1) held off EWU 80-75 in Moraga, California, despite trailing for 28 minutes and much of the second half.
Weeks have felt like months for the defending Big Sky Conference champs. The team has also isolated itself from social situations and gatherings during the season.
“It’s been tough on us, obviously,” said Groves, who averages 10.2 points off the bench. “Just not being able to go out and see the people you want. We try to keep a lot of things in our circle. We have a great brotherhood on our team, but we’d also like to see other people, but are restricted from doing that because we don’t want to potentially get COVID and ruin the season or a couple weeks.”
EWU senior guard Jacob Davison (12.6 points per game) had a similar sentiment.
“We’re a close-knit team,” Davison said. “We’re not trying to get (the virus) and being smart about what we’re doing. If someone gets it, it’s by accident. We know that nobody is doing anything that could harm this team.”
The Eagles, aiming for their first back-to-back Big Sky titles in program history, begin their quest at 6 p.m. Friday at Northern Arizona (0-3) and will face the Lumberjacks again at 3 p.m. Saturday at the Walkup Skydome in Flagstaff, Arizona.
Both games – played in consecutive order this season to save on travel costs – can be viewed on Pluto TV.
EWU, favored to win the Big Sky again after returning the bulk of its roster, had second-half leads in three of its four losses to bigger programs and is shooting a chilly 29% (41 for 140) from 3-point range and 68% from the free-throw line.
The Eagles will look to buck those trends this weekend against an NAU team that also lost to Arizona (96-53) this month.
EWU has won six in a row and 15 of its previous 18 games against the Lumberjacks, picked eighth in the conference preseason poll.
“Northern Arizona is coming off a tough game and will be ready to go – they are well-coached and have really good players,” EWU coach Shantay Legans said. “We’ll have to be ready to fight, rebound and do anything we can to win.
“It’s the most important game of the season – it’s a Big Sky Conference game and we have to come out and play well.”
NAU is paced by preseason All-Big Sky Conference guard Cameron Shelton, who is averaging 15.3 points. 3.3 rebounds, two assists and 1.7 steals.
Second-year NAU coach Shane Burcar is eager to see how his team stacks up against conference opposition.
“Unfortunately, we’re sitting at 0-3 and this is coach-speak a little, but we’re starting a new season,” Burcar said. “The big picture for us is the Big Sky Conference and there’s no better challenge than Eastern Washington coming into our building.”
Sophomore wing Tyler Robertson has been a pleasant surprise for EWU after a limited role last season. The 6-foot-8 Australian is now a starter, averaging a team-high 13.5 points per game (10 for 20 from 3-point range) and shooting 54% from the field.
Junior forward Tanner Groves leads the Eagles inside, averaging 12.2 points and 9.2 rebounds.
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