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Spring sprint: Schools and conferences adapt to 3 seasons competing at once

Administrators, support staff keep focus on student-athletes amid challenges

Members of the Metro State men’s tennis program gather for a team meeting. The COVID-19 pandemic forced NCAA schools and conferences to adapt to a new normal in everyday operations. This spring, several schools and conferences balanced fall, winter and spring sports taking place simultaneously. (Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos)

For administrators and support staff at NCAA member schools and conferences across the country, crossover season — a term typically used when fall sports seasons overlap with those of winter sports, or winter sports with spring sports — took on a whole new meaning this spring with all three seasons competing at once.

Take Division I Bucknell, for instance. At one point this semester, every one of its teams was in season. Bucknell sponsors 27 of them.

In April, Division II Emporia State had at least one team competing on 21 of the month’s 30 days. In total, there were 75 events/games during the month.  

These are two of the many examples of how schools across the NCAA are pulling off unprecedented schedules due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Conferences and the NCAA championships were also impacted, as Division I fall championships were held this spring. This added another layer to the busiest championship stretch on the calendar in a normal year.

The Southland Conference is a prime example. This year, it hosted men’s and women’s cross country, women’s volleyball and women’s soccer championships in the spring. The conference also added a beach volleyball championship to the mix for the first time in its history, and it is set to host the Division I Football Championship title game in Frisco, Texas, on Sunday.

And while fall championships were canceled in Divisions II and III, flexibility was provided for those schools to be able to hold fall sports competitions in the spring. Many have done so to give their student-athletes the best experience possible, given the circumstances. 

There have been countless challenges in pulling this off. COVID-19 testing, scheduling and staffing top a lengthy list. 

The collective purpose behind these success stories has not changed, however.

“Our focus is all on making sure the student-athletes have the best experience they can have,” said former Southland Conference Deputy Commissioner John Williams, who recently accepted an executive associate commissioner position with the Big 12 Conference. “That’s our mission and our goal.”

Staff members at the Southland Conference stand together to commemorate the end of the conference’s basketball tournaments this spring. Like many in college athletics this year, the staff developed a flexible mentality to pull off events in an unprecedented year. (Photo courtesy of the Southland Conference)

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More times than not this academic year, Ian Wood has been up until 2-3 a.m. That’s when Bucknell’s associate athletics director for sports medicine typically could access the previous day’s COVID-19 test results. This is after they were administered the morning before by his staff and driven via special courier to a lab five hours away. If the results don’t post by then, he’ll set an alarm for 5 a.m. to check again.

Erica Engelhaupt, assistant athletics trainer at Emporia State, can relate to creating such a system from scratch. Her staff usually tests athletes for four hours in the morning before a co-worker drives the tests 90 minutes every day to a lab in a Kansas City suburb.

“It’s hectic, but we’re getting it done,” she said.

The COVID-19 test results are the gatekeeper to practices and competitions, which — with more than three seasons’ worth of sports active at once — brought about a host of other challenges.

A student-athlete undergoes a nasal swab for a COVID-19 test at Metro State. (Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos)

In Bucknell’s case, this resulted in a few weekends like April 9-11, when 15 sports played at home in a combined 20 events. One venue — Christy Mathewson-Memorial Stadium — hosted a nontraditional football/lacrosse doubleheader that Saturday and a track meet that Sunday.

Facilities managers scrambled to keep up.

“It was an interesting challenge with putting up backstop nets, taking down backstop nets, worrying about locker room usage for who was in when, what time games were going to get done, how much time we had between to be able to change over our configuration — things we’re normally not worrying about in the spring season,” said Chad Mason, Bucknell associate director of athletics for operations and events.

On the communications side, providing coverage has taken an all-hands-on-deck approach this spring.

At Emporia State, Don Weast oversees athletics media relations as the only full-time staff member in his department. While he has some part-time assistants, this year they’re getting more solo experience and less hands-on training.

“We just have to figure out how to prioritize what we’re covering a little bit differently,” Weast said. “We’ve always had to, but this just adds another layer.”

Typically, Division I communications staff have a few sports they’re assigned to cover. This year, Bucknell Associate Director of Athletics Jon Terry — in his 20th year overseeing the athletics communications department — said those assignments have been thrown out the window. Bucknell is also in its first year with ESPN+ as its exclusive digital home for streaming live events, which has taken on an increased importance with limited fan attendance and added another ball to the air for his staff to juggle.

No matter the department, however, athletics staffs have adapted this year. This semester has created the most extreme examples.

In many Division I conferences, fall sports being moved to the spring created a nearly continuous stretch of championships. The Southland’s women’s soccer championship, for instance, began a stretch of five championships in a two-week stretch.

The Houston Baptist volleyball team won the 2021 Southland Conference Championship, the league’s first in the sport. At one point this spring, the Southland Conference held five championships in a two-week stretch. (Photo courtesy of the Southland Conference)

Jenny McGhee, senior associate commissioner at the Southland Conference, oversees three of those championships. She also manages the conference’s women’s volleyball championship — typically held in the fall — that took place March 31-April 3. With a small staff, she said they’ve embraced a saying: “We can, and we will.”

Williams said another phrase been equally important: “Be flexible.”

“You just don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said.

Like when two of the Southland’s employees tested positive for COVID-19 right before the start of their basketball tournaments, shrinking an already small staff. Or, in Bucknell’s case, when a football opponent changed on the Wednesday night of a game week. While unusual, these situations became normal this year, and staff learned to adapt to just about anything thrown their way.

“The fact of the matter is we’re able to make it happen for our student-athletes,” McGhee said.

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Mason compares the past year to the world’s longest roller coaster. The ride, in this metaphor, started in March 2020. At that point, it was like the ride broke down and everyone was stuck.

“Then all of a sudden, it starts moving a little bit, there’s a little bit of hope, and then someone hit that gas again on that roller coaster and then you were on for the ride of your life with a lot of twists, turns, those hidden tunnels where you have no idea where you’re going,” Mason said. “It’s a hard thing to explain, but we had a couple of basketball games where it was on, off, twist, turn … and you just kind of have to take a deep breath and roll with the punches.”

To be clear, the overwhelming consensus is in favor of the unpredictable, unprecedented schedule like the one that’s unfolded this spring to the pause sports was under a year ago at this time.

“It’s still a billion times better than last year at this time,” Weast said. “I’d much rather deal with nine events on one day than no events for 12 months.”

Terry echoed that sentiment. He said this year has been challenging for staff but has also reinforced the reason behind their work. 

“Whatever stress we were feeling, it’s nothing compared to what the student-athletes themselves were going through (last spring), so we don’t want to lose perspective on that,” he said. “We’re here for them. It’s really all focused on them.”

McGhee, as a former volleyball player at Stephen F. Austin, agreed. Personally, she knows the value college athletics brought to her life. It’s what drives her to go to work every day.

“Sports teaches us so many things about hard work, commitment, setting a goal and achieving it, and I think that is what we have continued to go back to, that makes it all worth it for what we do — the extra hours, the challenges,” she said. “We get to create those memories, and I think that is something that is so important for the young men and women who have given so much of their time and energy toward their sport. To be able to create that for them, even in a challenging state, is awesome. I think that’s what makes it all worth it.”

Bethany Bowman, a former high jumper at Emporia State who now assists Weast with digital and social media, said she has noticed a shift in student-athletes’ outlook this academic year, too.

“I think they’re all still playing every game to win, but at the end of the day, it’s just a little bit different perspective as far as last season we were all sitting at home, navigating this new situation we’ve never been in and now we get to be around our teammates. We get to just lace them up and go out there,” she said. “I think they’ve all learned a new appreciation and a new gratitude that they’ll carry with them for the rest of their lives, past sports as well.”