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COVID-19

Sports >  WSU football

Washington State athletics in ‘triage mode’

UPDATED: Fri., March 20, 2020

Washington State pitcher A.J. Block,  left, high-fives teammates during a game against Cal State Bakersfield on Feb. 15 in Bakersfield, Calif. (Courtesy/WSU Athletics / Courtesy)
Washington State pitcher A.J. Block, left, high-fives teammates during a game against Cal State Bakersfield on Feb. 15 in Bakersfield, Calif. (Courtesy/WSU Athletics / Courtesy)

PULLMAN – As Pat Chun sat in on a season-ending meeting for Washington State’s baseball team – a gathering that took place last week, nearly two months before it would under normal circumstances – the athletic director briefly thought about A.J. Block.

While the university puts plans in place to combat and mitigate the novel coronavirus that has afflicted more than 1,500 Washingtonians, Chun is busy figuring out what’s next, and what’s best, for WSU’s athletic department.

He’s allowing himself a few moments of empathy, too.

Block, a left-handed pitcher from Bellevue, is one of two seniors on WSU’s baseball roster and an exemplary student-athlete – the type Chun probably wishes he could clone. The 6-foot-5, 220-pound hurler is maintaining a 4.0 grade-point average while pursuing a degree in one of the school’s more rigorous academic curricula (engineering) and should supplement his college diploma with a third Pac-12 All-Academic first-team certificate this spring.

Until the NCAA canceled spring sports and other related activities, the Newport High School product had been a cornerstone of Brian Green’s rebuild at WSU, electing to return to college because guiding the coach through his first season in Pullman was more enticing than playing professionally for the Detroit Tigers organization, which picked up Block in the 17th round of the 2019 MLB draft.

Block went 1-15 on the mound through his first three seasons – a record that was not reflective of his abilities – but the tall southpaw was off to a roaring start in February and March, sporting a 2-1 record with a team-leading 34 strikeouts.

“Although he won’t say it, I’m guessing he didn’t have the greatest experience his first three years, or at least the experiences that were promised to him,” Chun said Friday on a conference call. “But he bought in to what the new coach was trying to deliver, he was a key cog to this. … So, knowing that he wasn’t going to be able to finish the year out, those are the tough discussions.”

Eventually, Chun will have concrete answers to many of the other questions being asked: When will spring football start? What’s the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic for an athletic department? Will spring athletes be awarded another year of eligibility? But for now, the second-year AD said he’s focused on the health and general well-being of Block and the other spring athletes who recently had their seasons knocked off course.

“It’s so new we haven’t even got to a place where any rules have been formed for change, so I think right now we’re at a kind of triage mode,” Chun said. “We’re more worried about what does Monday look like. We’ve been trying to inventory what student-athletes are coming back or aren’t coming back. Probably the most daunting thing in front of us is this distance learning, online learning.

“At the end of the day, sports are secondary to what’s going on in the world right now. We have to do our job to flatten this curve. We have to practice social distancing. We’ve got to be responsible citizens.”

Nonetheless, many are still wondering what’s next for first-year head coach Nick Rolovich and his WSU football program – one of three in the Pac-12 that didn’t manage to squeeze in a spring practice before the NCAA suspended organized team activities through March 29. In a school statement sent out last week, Chun cited April 2 as a potential target date for when the Cougars could hold their first spring practice – six days after camp was originally scheduled to start – but that also seems to be in serious jeopardy.

Chun said there isn’t a drop-dead date for when the school would have to make a decision on canceling spring football, but it’s worth mentioning that many of WSU’s Pac-12 peers have moved in that direction. Washington, which hadn’t started spring camp, canceled all athletic-related events and activities through the end of the spring quarter. Oregon announced its April 18 spring game would no longer take place.

“I know it’s not going to be in the format of what we’re all used to, especially where we’re at today, especially in the state of Washington,” Chun said, speaking of spring football. “I think for us, it’s just there’s no rush because we don’t even know when we can restart it and then how far down the road it is.”

Discussions on when WSU could hold spring football will happen “at the appropriate time,” Chun said.

In phone calls and video chats, Chun has advised WSU’s coaches to adjust to what the “new normal” may look like, and speculated that fall sports may not begin “practicing until June or July.”

Even as the spring semester resumes Monday, a school alert recommended that students who don’t need to immediately return to the Pullman campus should stay at home and take advantage of the online distance learning system the school is offering.

While Chun couldn’t place an estimate on how much COVID-19-related cancellations would cost the school, he assured WSU would take a significant financial hit by forfeiting the allotment each Pac-12 school receives when the conference is represented at March Madness – “the economic engine for the NCAA,” Chun said. The AD also noted the school will sacrifice payouts from the Pac-12 Networks because its sporting events will no longer be televised.

“We’re all realists, that this could end in the fall, and if that does, how does that impact us?” Chun said. “So, we don’t have any concrete numbers yet. We also know there’s going to be impact. Where that lands, we’ll have to prepare for that.”

The Cougars also no longer anticipate holding a pro day on April 1 as the NFL has placed indefinite travel restriction on its scouting departments.

“With whatever travel limits there’s going to be,” Chun said, “right now there are no plans to do it.”

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