PITTSBURGH — As the spring months continued on, Atlantic 10 Commissioner Bernadette McGlade and her staff optimistically laid the framework out for a potential fall sports season however in recent weeks a lot has changed as COVID-19 has forced the fall season to be postponed to the spring.
Despite the spring sports season being cancelled cities with the conference footprint slowly started to reopen and the positivity continued through May as there were several plans in place for the fall.
With the proposed conference schedule having teams placed in pods and 25% of A-10 contests cut, at least 70% of flights were cut, which is quite a statement considering traveling by air is rather common. This model would have allowed for enough contests to be recognized as a competitive entity by the NCAA. Though things appeared to be on a solid footing, that optimism did not last long enough as COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths all drastically rose.
All of a sudden the options for fall sports became just two, postpone to the spring or cancel altogether. McGlade and other key decision makers across the country all chose the former keeping health, safety and the student-athlete experience all in mind.
“It really has been tremendously unusual,” McGlade said in a Zoom chat when assessing the past few months. “The virus has been so erratic and it is a situation where we all deal at different points in time with chaos or confusion but when you layer over top of that the extreme reality of the health risk, there is a level of anxiety that we’ve had to work to control. To be able to pace every single day and realize there are some things that are out of our control and you can’t make decisions by yourself. That has been critically important. It’s a notch above a chaotic environment with the sobering reality of quite frankly individuals you know and care about. It adds a different level of stress, empathy and concern to how important every decision is.”
The decisions were reached by conference membership and McGlade stressed that though she talked with leadership from peers across other conferences, this decision was made independently.
Fall sports student-athletes will still train in the fall with modifications which will be determined by each member institution. These would include smaller groups for more confined areas such as a weight room, but it is quite possible drill work and other areas would see refinements with the safety protocols in place.
If there proves to be no fall sports season, then the Atlantic 10 will appeal if the NCAA does not offer a blanket waiver. The NCAA set a precedent for this by granting a blanket waiver for spring sport student-athletes their respective year of eligibility back.
SPORTS IN THE FALL NOT NECESSARILY OVER… YET
An interesting wrinkle the Atlantic 10 placed in its press release was the idea of a “look-in window”. While the conference is proceeding with the almost certain reality that fall sports will have to be played in the spring, this provides an ability where if COVID numbers rapidly improve and all teams, coaches and personnel can safely compete that a reduced fall sports schedule would be held with an Oct. 4 likely start date.
Though McGlade admitted the opportunity was “slim”, it was one that was at least worth keeping as a possibility.
“There would have to be a significant upward trend in all of the impacts that we’re seeing right now,” she said. “It is about securing the health and safety of everyone. It allows us the opportunity to put together a conference-only competitive schedule that would not begin until approximately October 4. That would be contingent on what fall sports would be involved. It is a slim opportunity, but we feel like we should keep it on the table.”
One thing that has been decided is that with the exception of men’s and women’s basketball, all A-10 Championships for the 2020-21 academic year that will be contested will have a Final Four format, meaning a championship location will host a semifinal and a final.
Of course if a championship site becomes a hot zone for COVID-19 or is otherwise deemed unsafe to host, then the event will be cancelled.
“There is no question about it if there are hot spots and the pandemic is still raging in parts of the footprint, I would say we won’t be competing, we won’t have the championship, so it would be as simple as that,” said McGlade. “We would not have a championship if our environment is not safe. It takes a village when you have these conference championship and all of our help needs to be taken in consideration.”
With the A-10 now withdrawing from fall competition with the hope of a spring season, it will now wait to see what the NCAA opts to do with its championship. NCAA president Mark Emmert was quoted as stating that for college sports to happen in the fall a better handling of the pandemic is needed. This seems to make it likely that the NCAA will follow what individual conferences are doing and not hold its fall championships.
McGlade expressed an understanding that the NCAA controls its championships, but the A-10 had to act in the best interest of its members. If the NCAA postpones its fall championships, then the Atlantic 10 will set out to compete for those berths in the spring.
HOW THE SPRING MAY LOOK
It is rather safe to say that administrators, sports information directors, facilities and student workers/apprentices will have a chaotic spring if everything is in place. Essentially all sports will operate on a January-June schedule, with the obvious hope that basketball will start before that, though as indicated above nothing has been determined when it comes to the hardwood or swimming and diving seasons.
For Duquesne the Cooper Fieldhouse experienced understandable delays due to COVID-19, but the best case scenario would be for it to be available for at least part of the basketball season. If the venue is not ready, a to be determined venue would again house the men’s and women’s basketball teams. Last year, those were PPG Paints Arena, LaRoche University’s Kerr Fitness Center, Robert Morris’s UPMC Events Center and Oakland Catholic High School.
The men’s and women’s soccer teams, lacrosse and football pending what the NEC decides for its season all share Rooney Field which would make practice times all the more crucial. Duquesne swimming uses Towers Pool while diving mainly practices at Carnegie Mellon University. CMU presently will have a hybrid fall semester, which makes it unclear how available those facilities would be, especially with no fall sports occurring. Volleyball held its home matches at Mount Lebanon High School. Bowling venues are in question at the moment since lanes are tight, ball returns get crowded and many teams would pose problems when it comes to social distancing.
Perhaps the most interesting development would come with cross country and track and field.
Indoor track is a winter sport but there would be blending with track-and-field which of course is outdoors. There is overlap in these sports and training for both will provide challenges. Still, there will have to be some spacing since running in the snow is far from practical.
Men’s and women’s soccer will have some acclamation to competing in the spring, as they already have non-traditional seasons, normally consisting of training and exhibition contests. Those dates now can be used for a spring season.
McGlade was close to certain that the 25% reduced conference scheduled would be in affect.
BASKETBALL’S FATE TBD
Of course the question on many reporter’s minds was about basketball season, though McGlade pumped the breaks on those by referring back to the press release which stated that no decision had been made about the winter sports.
Basketball is a little over 75 days from its first official practice though Monday summer workouts can begin, though the virtual and in-person work cannot exceed more than eight hours a week. For those truly counting down, we are a little over three months away from the season tipping off.
“We decided not to make any winter sports decisions and will stay abreast of everything that is happening nationally and regionally,” McGlade said. “We will proceed down that road sometime in the future. We focused on the immediate decisions on allowing these fall student-athletes to come back to campus early to start their training before classes started. That was the immediate priority.”
At the moment, there are no plans in place for the pods that would have held in the fall. In June, NBC Sports Washington’s Tyler Byrum first reported on these pods and Duquesne would have been paired with Dayton, St. Bonaventure and Saint Louis would have reportedly joined the Dukes. Though this was not confirmed by the conference Dayton is approximately a four-hour drive and St. Bonaventure three making both accessible by bus. Saint Louis would likely be a flight trip.
McGlade stressed that the priority for basketball is playing national schedules which would lead to being nationally competitive. With most teams having private charters, that becomes a more important factor with regards to safety.
“We are going to be in the ready position and if basketball season has a truncated schedule we will participate in any way that we can,” said McGlade.