COVID-19 puts Utah’s fall athletic athletes and coaches to their ears

Ballpoint pens started collecting dust on Rich Manning’s desk on the University of Utah campus. The Utes’ women’s football coach isn’t of much use to them these days.

“The themes were: write everything in pencil, take it day to day, be ready to change and do your best to reach out to your athletes and keep them on a positive path,” he said. declared. “It’s really kind of my motto.”

COVID-19 has taken its toll on the fall varsity sports season. As athlete arrival dates on campus and the start of training camps approached, guidelines and protocols began to change weekly, if not daily. Football has occupied much of the attention, but the changes have had as much, if not more, of an impact on athletes and coaches of other fall sports – such as women’s volleyball and men’s cross country and women’s, tennis and soccer.

It is for this reason that Manning does not feel comfortable reaching for a pen in his office and inking his plans. After all, he has had to relay new training dates to his players three times this summer. The latest came on August 11 – four days before its players were supposed to report – when the Pac-12 conference, in which the Utes play, canceled all sports until at least January 1.

Manning’s players finally walked onto the pitch together on Monday, the same day class began. For now, they will train 20 hours a week. Still, Manning has said the NCAA may cut training time, likely to the 12 hours it approved for non-playing football teams this fall, when it meets again in mid-September.

At this point, the coach is just hoping that all of this upheaval won’t be wasted and that the fall athletic championships can be moved to spring – a door the Pac-12 is still open – rather than being canceled altogether. Logistically, however, adding up to 22 more sports to the 66 the NCAA is already welcoming in the spring would be a Herculean task.

Even still, it wouldn’t work for all sports and all athletes, including BYU senior Matt Owens.

Owens scored for the Cougars cross-country team when he won the national championship last fall. However, he also runs indoor runs in winter and outdoor runs in spring. He qualified for the Olympic Steeplechase Trials and was among the top three college athletes returning to the event before this spring before COVID-19 wiped out spring sports.

He said winning back that lost season is his priority right now.

(Photo courtesy of Nate Edwards | BYU) Matt Owens competes at the NCAA National Cross Country Championships in Terre Haute, Indiana on November 23, 2019.

“At this point, I’m mostly hoping the indoor track is going to be a thing,” said Owens. “If they find, for example, a way to do cross-country at the same time logistically, great, I love that. But at this point, I’ve basically moved beyond cross country and I’m getting ready for some fun races this season, but I’m really getting ready for the track.

Other fall athletes feel stuck in limbo waiting for the NCAA or their individual conferences to make a decision on the fate of their sport.

Utah golfer Andy Hess also canceled his sport’s championship last spring. With the fall season off the books and next spring still in limbo, he realizes he could train for a full year without competitive payment. It’s a situation he finds particularly frustrating since golf, a non-contact sport played outdoors with few spectators, is arguably the most social-distancing sport in the NCAA.

To stay competitive, Hess took part in several public tournaments this summer. In May, he tied the course record at Logan Golf & Country Club, the Aggies home course. Earlier this month, he won the Men’s Club Championship at Logan River Golf Course, where he works. And next week, shoot for the Utah State Amateur Championship title in Park City. Tournaments break up the monotony of training, he said, but the fields aren’t as deep as he sees them when playing for USU.

“I played really well. It’s a bit unfortunate because I wish I could have played well in the fall, but that’s what it is, ”he said. “I have to try to make the most of it and play in as many tournaments as possible. I just worked out a lot and I’m trying to work on some things. That’s about all I can do at this point.

Hess and Owens are both seniors on track to graduate by spring. The NCAA has already guaranteed them an additional season of eligibility if they so choose, but neither has made up their minds. For both, that would mean adding a minor and avoiding the next chapter in their lives for at least a year.

Last week, the NCAA extended that same offer with an additional year of eligibility for fall sports athletes, regardless of how many players they will have to play this spring. Manning said it was a game-changer for his football players, some of whom questioned whether it was worth playing a partial season if it meant losing an entire season of eligibility.

“The kids were like jumping up and down, like the pressure was off,” he said.

Dani Drews, an outstanding outside hitter for the Utah volleyball team, didn’t need long to make her decision. A day after the announcement, she was already planning to add a minor to her degree in Parks, Recreation and Tourism so that she could spend an extra season with a The Utah team that lost to future national champion Stanford in the second round of the NCAA tournament last year.

“It’s just that I saw it from the perspective of only you can play varsity sports for so long. And for me, it would be really embarrassing if I graduated this fall and decided not to come back, ”said Drews, a Brighton High product. “I think I would always wonder how far our team could have gone if I had played my last year. If we could have achieved even higher goals. And I think I would really regret that I missed it.

(Photo courtesy of Steve C. Wilson | University of Utah) Dani Drews plays in a Utah volleyball game against BYU on September 19, 2019 in Salt Lake City.

The college sports scene that Drews will return to in a year, however, could be very different from what she experienced. Sports departments nationwide, including in Utah and the state of Utah, will either need to borrow or make sweeping cuts to bolster the millions of dollars they expect to lose due to the postponement of income-generating seasons of football and, potentially, basketball. The impending loss of income has already prompted Stanford to remove 11 sports from its list of 36, although its athletics department has been losing money for years.

“Now we have to deal with budget issues with football not playing right away. I think that’s another thing that will affect our department quite a bit,” Manning said. “It’s going to be tough. “

Manning said he was told Utah will make its budget decisions in the coming weeks. For now, it is one more uncertainty that hangs over his program and his players in an already unpredictable year. This is all the more reason to write plans in pencil.

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About Perry Perrie

Perry Perrie

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