“Stay ready, so we don’t have to get ready.”
St. Olaf College head volleyball coach Emily Foster has uttered this mantra to her team countless times in 2020. Under the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, she stresses the importance of being ready for whatever's next, whenever it's coming.
The pandemic has ravaged not only global health, but has impacted industries in ways unseen.
Plans seemingly set in stone have washed away.
Due to health and safety precautions, collegiate athletics in the U.S. suffered a cancelation of the 2019-2020 winter season championships and the entire 2020 spring season.
The 2020 fall season and beyond are now in the crosshairs as the pandemic continues.
At time of writing, Carleton College in Northfield canceled all fall athletics, becoming the first in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference to do so. St. Olaf College in Northfield is planning for a full fall season.
St. Olaf’s plan calls for students to return to campus to begin classes Aug. 20, two weeks ahead of the school year’s original start date. Athletic teams are slated to report to campus Aug. 10.
The fall semester concludes Thanksgiving week, with students not returning until January for the winter semester. Fall break was canceled in order to reduce travel to and from campus.
Return of NCAA athletics
St. Olaf’s fall women’s sports include volleyball, cross country, golf (fall/spring split), and soccer. St. Olaf’s men’s sports include football, cross country, golf (fall/spring split) and soccer.
All Oles teams will adhere to the NCAA’s recommendations of resocializing collegiate athletics in a three-step phasing process.
The process follows guidelines provided by a White House and Centers for Disease Control sponsored document titled Guidelines -- Opening Up America Again.
Prior to Phase One, schools are asked to be in compliance with local, state and national laws relating to COVID-19. Compliance with federal guidelines regarding social distancing, sanitation, testing, tracing, etc. are also requested.
Gating criteria to properly begin each phase includes that at a state and local level that there is a downward trajectory within a 14-day period of influenza and COVID-like cases/illnesses, a downward trajectory of positive COVID-19 tests, and that hospitals are not in crisis.
St. Olaf athletics director Ryan Bowles said his department will not require student-athletes to participate in the fall if they have safety concerns.
"I think our student-athletes are really anxious to be able to come back and compete and play because it is such a big part of their experience," Bowles said. "But, at the same time, if a student-athlete expresses any kind of concern, we would accommodate that. We’re not going to force anybody to play. Our number one goal is health and safety. If that was a coach or a student-athlete or even myself, if anyone takes a step away in the fall, we’ll completely understand and accommodate that."
St. Olaf junior starting quarterback Lars Prestemon echoed Bowles' sentiment.
"You see that in the NBA with players opting out, even some NFL players are talking about it now. It’s just crazy circumstances, and no one’s going to hold any life-threatening illness over you for collegiate football," Prestemon said. "It’s way more than football."
Phase One permits practices and team gatherings, recommending groups of 10 or fewer, unless physical distancing and sanitation can be achieved. Gyms and common areas should remain closed, and vulnerable student-athletes and coaches should continue to shelter in place. Physical distancing and virtual meetings are encouraged.
In accordance with federal guidelines, if Phase One is carried out successfully over 14 days, Phase Two begins.
Phase Two is similar to Phase One, with differences including a recommendation to avoid groups of 50, instead of the previously prescribed 10. Nonessential travel (i.e. to competitions) may resume.
If Phase Two is implemented successfully over two weeks, Phase Three begins. This phase invites vulnerable individuals to resume in-person interactions while practicing physical distancing and reducing exposure where possible.
Gyms and common areas can reopen if appropriate sanitation protocols are implemented. Low- and high-risk populations are still encouraged to minimize time in crowded environments. Individuals who test positive will self-isolate for 14 days. Those in contact with individuals who test positive are also encouraged to be tested and self-isolate.
St. Olaf student-athletes are expected to be tested every two weeks, though symptomatic individuals may be tested more frequently.
Coming closer with distance
St. Olaf made the decision in March to conclude the 2020 spring semester with online classes only.
Head football coach James Killian knew it might be a while until he saw his guys again as the pandemic was then just in its infancy in the U.S.
“I told the guys prepare like this is going to be a real thing,” said fourth-year head coach Killian. “Anticipate not coming back (to campus). Get your mind prepared for that.”
Workers and students around the country have been asked to work remotely where possible. That’s just what Killian’s crew did.
They’re among the surging population now proficient with video calls.
“We weren’t able to have spring football, but we had Zoom meetings. Once we got to the summer, we did the same thing,” Killian said. “We’ve got incoming freshmen and first-year players involved with the Zoom meetings and their parents, to keep them informed and everything. Couple that with the George Floyd murder and all the unrest that’s come with that. I would say this summer more than any time I’ve been connected to our players.”
The Oles volleyball team argues social distancing does not lead to emotional distancing.
“I still feel like we had a really productive spring, although most of it was off the court,” Foster said of her squad coming together electronically. “It’s been nice to just stay connected. I feel like I’ve been talking with my team more than in past summers, so that’s been good.”
Foster sends out weekly emails with information, levity and updates on the season ahead.
"Three people will have one week they have to send out an email with a summer update," said senior setter Lexi Wall. "This summer it’s three hype songs, one motivational video and then just a few updates with some pictures. That’s been really cool to see how people are spending their free time and how they are staying ready."
Along with supporting one another through difficult times, Foster has also impressed upon her team, which seeks its fourth straight 20-win season, the importance of keeping focus.
In a time of uncertainty, controlling what one can control is crucial.
“Hopefully we’ll be more adaptable than any other team that we play,” Foster said. “Stay ready so we don’t have to get ready. Whether if we’re playing in September, whether we’re playing our next game in a year, a month, six months, we are going to stay ready so we don’t have to get ready.”
Wall anticipates a buildup of excitement for the season working in her team's favor.
"I definitely anticipate more growth this year," Wall, a Chanhassen, Minnesota, native said. "Obviously with the changes that are occurring, but with our ability to stay flexible and stay motivated. I think all the pent up energy of ‘I want to play volleyball. I haven't played since November.’ I think that’s really going to show out for us, and provide extra motivation and extra energy for one another."
Without being able to assemble in groups or use gyms throughout the spring practice season, St. Olaf coaches and training staff have offered methods for athletes to stay in shape with limited resources.
St. Olaf prominently promotes study abroad programs to its student population, including athletes. Killian credited St. Olaf director of athletic performance, Charlie Woida, with creating a program for student-athletes studying internationally who may not have access to workout equipment.
These regiments carried over to student-athletes quarantining at home.
“(Woida) has a full workout that’s just body weight stuff. In the early time, we basically just transitioned to our study abroad workout that everybody can do,” Killian said. “There were probably some home gym accessories purchased over the last few months, as well.”
Prestemon, is working to hold teammates accountable.
“This is a great opportunity for you to show us how much you care about the team,” the Northfield native, Prestemon, said. “If you really care like you say you do, then you’re going to be committed to doing these body weight workouts. It’s not what you want to do, we’d obviously rather be with our trainer and our teammates, but if you really like this team and you really love football, then you’ll work really hard, do the body weight stuff and find a way to get stuff done.”
While plans are in place for a full fall season, more cancelations could be on the way.. The Ivy League opted to postpone all fall sports until at least Jan. 1. At time of writing, the Big Ten and Pac-10 chose to limit their member schools to conference play only in football, with the three other power conferences in Division-I football, the NCAA's greatest revenue sport, to perhaps follow suit.
A smattering of schools and conferences have opted out of the upcoming season in various sports. These schools are primarily at the NCAA's lower levels.
Coaching staffs aplenty have taken pay or position cuts due to the pandemic. Stanford, the second largest athletic department in Division-I in terms of number of varsity sports, cut 11 teams.
If a season is not played in full or is canceled, the possibility exists of a limited season with fewer practices and games.
A high-contact sport like football with large numbers, may face more obstacles to complete a season than a more distanced sport like golf. An indoor sport, like volleyball, poses different scenarios as opposed to the rest of the fall sports teams who compete outdoors.
Practices will primarily be in small groups, making scrimmaging and group work a challenge to achieve.
Limiting travel is a mitigation tool in containing the spread of COVID-19. Teams may wind up with a conference-only schedule, or a schedule against strictly regional foes.
An advantage for St. Olaf and the MIAC in this hypothetical scenario is its conference members are all in one state. Plane travel and overnight lodging are not necessary.
The exact extent to how teams will be impacted by members testing positive for COVID-19 remains to be seen.
"The protocols we have are in line with what the CDC recommends," Killian said. "That person would self-isolate and everyone they come in to contact with will be quarantined. So you can see how a case or two could affect us."
Spectators, if allowed, will likely be required to follow health guidelines at events. The number of spectators allowed may also be limited.
Bowles and his colleagues are using guidance from the MIAC, CDC, Minnesota Department of Health and the NCAA in forming COVID-19 procedures.
"We feel good about our plan. I think that it is a fluid situation, though. Information can change on a daily basis," Bowles said. "The three things I’ve asked our folks to operate with is flexibility, creativity and empathy. Those need to be the pillars of our decision making and how we operate. If we are able to play it in the fall, just view it as a blessing, because we certainly learned this spring that you can’t take anything for granted."