Members of the offensive line trotted out to the practice field behind the Whitworth Fieldhouse, their masks on as they began their first practice in a fall. They did so with no certain plans to play a football game anytime soon.
South of them, on Marks Field, the softball team spread out across the field, in the batting cages and even on the adjacent grassy lawn, where a few batterymates played catch.
And just behind the diamond, the women’s soccer team kept in its groups of four or five, doing what they can to keep this unprecedented fall sports season going.
“What I basically told them is in one sense we control our own destiny,” Pirates athletics director Tim Demant said of his messaging to coaches and athletes. “If we want to get to a point where we can play, we have to do our part.”
None of Whitworth’s 13 teams currently practicing expects to compete against teams from other schools anytime soon. The four winter sports programs – men’s and women’s basketball and swimming – are the most likely to compete first, Demant said, because the NCAA opted to hold its national championships when they normally would be held.
Those teams could start competitions in early January. Fall sports would play a truncated regular season starting in February, Demant said, although those plans are still tentative and schedules are not finalized.
“Right now, if everything held true, our first football game would be Feb. 6,” Demant said.
For now, though, as Whitworth University continues through its third week of holding classes on campus – with five known active cases of COVID-19, according to its most recent update on Friday – coaches were just happy to be practicing with their players.
“The first word that comes to mind is ‘fun,’ ” football coach Rod Sandberg said. “We got to be back together coaching with our athletes. I have not coached on the field since November.”
With a roster of 122, the football team is limiting its practice to grouping by positions. On Monday, the offense had the field to itself for the first half before the defense had its turn on the field.
Even then, those position groups were spread to every corner of the field.
Sandberg can’t address his entire team in person, so he is relying on his assistant coaches more than ever.
“I need to coach my coaches in the office and meetings and make sure they’re crystal clear on expectations, and then I gotta trust them to get it done,” Sandberg said.
Jeremy Payne is coaching the men’s soccer team in person for the first time since he was hired in late March, after the COVID-19 pandemic-related restrictions canceled the team’s spring practice season.
He has split his team into groups of five – what the NCAA Division III guidelines call “functional units” – that consistently practice together. They don’t mix with other groups, so as to minimize any potential spread of COVID-19.
“There are challenges with that, for sure,” Payne said. “We can have the whole team out there but have to separate the groups.”
But he said he is trying to figure out ways to be creative.
“Can we actually have two groups working together if they’re apart?” Payne said. “Wingers on the outside and serving balls to guys in the box? In those ways, we’re still asking ourselves questions (about what is permissible).”
Coaches said they were aware that Whitworth is under a bit of a microscope, considering other schools in the region like Washington State and Eastern Washington are not officially on the practice field.
“When we’re training on our game field, there’s a lot of people who will see us,” Payne said. “We have to be cognizant of that.”
That means players have been asked to be diligent about having their face coverings on during nonstrenuous portions of practice. Many wore them around their necks or carried them in pockets on Monday, ready to put them on.
“We need to make sure we represent Whitworth well on and off the court,” women’s tennis coach Rachel Aldridge said. “We had several team meetings about what that means.”
Much of that means choosing to follow protocols about how many others they can gather with – no more than five from outside their home contact group – and to wear masks whenever they do so, Aldridge said.
But even then, Aldridge – whose team literally has its own tennis bubble and can basically practice as usual – is trying to strike a unique balance between maintaining concrete expectations of conduct and also extending grace, she said, for students who are managing hybrid classes in a pandemic, in a presidential election cycle, during a time of economic uncertainty and social unrest.
“On an emotional and psychological wellness level, these student-athletes are experiencing something pretty different than any body of student-athletes have experienced before,” said Aldridge, who is also an adjunct psychology professor on campus. “I want them to have some certainty, but I and my student-athletes have been required to be so much more flexible than I’ve had to be before. … Everyone’s attitudes have been great.”
On the football field, the practice configurations remind that this is still not normal. Instead of lining up against offensive players, the defensive line is shoving practice dummies. Receivers aren’t being covered by cornerbacks, and the quarterbacks aren’t running 11-on-11 drills at any point.
But they are at least back on the field, and at this point that is a major step, Demant said, even if there won’t likely be any competitions coming before the new year.
How to play soccer, football and other sports safely in February, and how to find practice times for everyone when the sun sets even earlier on playing surfaces that might be covered in snow or frozen solid?
Those are problems Demant said he is happy to help solve.
“Our first goal is to have the opportunity to play,” he said. “I’ll gladly take on the problem of how we’re gonna make it happen.”
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