Olympic sports are still slated to compete for UW this fall. Here's how they're preparing.Casper Star Tribune, Wyo. — Davis Potter Casper Star Tribune, Wyo.
Aug. 01-- Aug. 1--LARAMIE -- Football is king.
It's a reality that's ringing true now more than ever given what's at stake financially in intercollegiate athletics. Nearly every institution relies on football to annually generate the millions of dollars in revenue needed to keep their athletic departments afloat, which is why those in and around college athletics are anxiously waiting to see what the sport's ultimate fate will be this fall as the coronavirus pandemic continues to produce a spike in case numbers nationwide.
Unlike most Power Five conferences, which, in the case of the Big Ten, Pac-12, SEC and ACC, have already switched to league-only schedules or something close to it, the Mountain West has yet to make any changes to its schedules. For the University of Wyoming and an athletic department that operates on a budget of roughly $40 million, $10.5 million is at stake.
But as easy as it is to forget amid all the television contracts and dollar signs, the football team isn't the only one slated to compete for the university this fall.
UW hasn't eliminated any of its 17 sponsored sports as a cost-cutting response to the pandemic, and athletic director Tom Burman has been adamant that there aren't any plans to do so. So four Olympic fall sports -- women's soccer, men's and women's cross country and volleyball -- are also preparing for a season, all of which have less time to do so than the school's primary sport.
Soccer, which has a Sept. 3 match at Kansas State on the docket, is the first sport scheduled to return to competition. Cross country has its opening meet scheduled for Sept. 4 in Cheyenne, and volleyball will begin its season Sept. 18 in a tournament at Northern Colorado.
Of course, everything is tentative.
"We're just trying to communicate to the athletes about what we're preparing for and trying to keep them positive and letting them know that we don't know exactly what's going to happen this fall, but we're not trying for nothing," said Scott Dahlberg, who's entering his second season as UW's cross country coach. "There are still benefits that can be gained, and we're going to press forward either way."
All student-athletes who have returned to campus and completed their mandated 14-day quarantine are still going through voluntary workouts, but soccer is scheduled to hold its first official practice Tuesday. Volleyball will start practicing Friday. Cross country won't hold its first practice until Aug. 17, which will allow time for the entire team to get through quarantine once all runners return to campus.
Dahlberg said only four of his 38 runners are back on campus at this point. The rest will return Sunday as part of the school's fifth phase to eventually get all of its student-athletes back on campus. All soccer and volleyball players have returned.
So far, no UW student-athletes or coaches have tested positive for the novel coronavirus. And at this point, Dahlberg, soccer coach Pete Cuadrado and volleyball coach Chad Callihan said none of their players have expressed to them any concerns about playing amid a pandemic.
"Believe it or not, we've actually had pushback the other way," Cuadrado said. "I'll leave names out, but we've had three or four sets of families or players come in and be like, 'I don't want to wear a mask.' It's actually surprising to me.
"They want to play. They want to be out there. Believe it or not, at one stage a month ago, they were saying we had to wear the (mask) when we play. Our players were more like, 'We don't want to wear those when we play.' So that's been the biggest pushback is the opposite of the restrictions. But to be honest right now, I think they'd do anything to get on the field."
Whether masks will be required during competition is still unknown, and all three coaches said they aren't likely to require their players to wear them during practice, at least during the team portions. But if a coach wants to pull one of his players to the side for a chat or address the team as a group, masks would be mandatory in those scenarios, though players and coaches plan to maintain at least 6 feet of distance whenever it's possible.
"I don't even know if we'll huddle up," Callihan said. "We'll probably try to keep a safe distance as much as possible. At some point, we're going to end up a little closer together. When we can, we'll probably use them, but to say we're going to wear a mask for a two-hour practice I don't think is reasonable."
Dahlberg said while it's unlikely all 38 of his student-athletes will run together in a cluster, he anticipates them being able to run in "groups of some sort." But training outdoors also gives the cross country teams the option of spacing all of its runners out if needed.
"Right now, we're kind of waiting for what guidelines are going to be placed in general and then just adapting what we have to within those," Dahlberg said. "One nice thing about our sport is there is no contact, and it's outside. So, especially during the fall, we can really spread out if we have to."
Cuadrado said his student-athletes will be required to spread out when standing in line during warmups and individual drills, though he said the goal is to avoid having his players form lines as often as possible. But social distancing can be more of a challenge in soccer and volleyball, sports with smaller rosters that need nearly every player available in order to practice team periods.
"At some point, it's going to have to be a full practice," Callihan said. "Unlike football, our roster is only 15, and we need 12 to 14 to scrimmage. That's essentially the whole team right there."
Soccer is limiting capacity to 10 people at a time in its indoor locker room and 14 in its more spacious outdoor locker room, Cuadrado said, while volleyball won't start using its team room until next week. Only 50-percent capacity will be allowed for meetings and other small gatherings, Callihan said.
Student-athletes and coaches in all four sports are also isolating themselves from the High Altitude Performance Center, where the football team trains, when eating their school-provided meals as a way to limit their potential exposure to the virus. For soccer, those measures also have come in the form of tweaks to the practice schedule.
UW's match against Kansas State, which is now a regular-season contest after initially being scheduled as an exhibition, was originally supposed to be played Aug. 9, which is around the time soccer season normally starts. An ordinary preseason schedule gives teams less than two weeks to cram in practices before competition begins.
Cuadrado said his team would usually practice twice a day in order to get adequately prepared, but with nearly a full month until the first scheduled match this year, the plan is for soccer to have one on-field practice each day and add some weightlifting sessions as part of the team's preseason training.
"This year, one of the other things that has been recommended is the more fresh we can keep our team, the better," Cuadrado said.
Volleyball will stick with its two-a-day schedule, but Callihan said the playing surface and the balls will be disinfected after each practice. As the only fall sport that practices and competes indoors, volleyball will also have to try to avoid possible contamination from the outside in its enclosed space.
Callihan said he welcomes any exposure his program can get, so he usually has an open-door policy when it comes to allowing other coaches, fans and family members to attend the team's practices inside the UniWyo Sports Complex. But that likely won't be the case this year.
"We really don't want anybody else in there," Callihan said. "You hear about all these bubbles. If we can keep our bubble as small and as tight as possible, then I think it benefits our players."
Assuming fall sports go on as planned, the question is exactly what will each team's season look like?
The NCAA recently approved a waiver to cut the number of minimum competitions required of fall sports other than football by 50 percent, and scheduling restrictions put in place by many conferences have already lightened UW's fall schedules with soccer down to 14 matches (from 20) and volleyball down to 18 (from 30). Cross country has already had meets at the University of Minnesota and the University of Wisconsin canceled. Dahlberg said the team may only compete in two regular-season meets, which would meet the sport's modified competition minimum.
More regular-season competitions could be scheduled depending on what other conferences decide to do with their non-conference slates, but the Mountain West has already trimmed the number of league matches from 18 to 16. As part of more financial cuts, the league decided in June to cancel its soccer tournament this season.
More postseason competitions could be eliminated Tuesday if the NCAA's board of governors decides during its meeting then to cancel fall championships, which it has the authority to do in several sports, including women's soccer and volleyball. The College Football Playoff, which is run by the Football Bowl Subdivision conferences, isn't among them.
"We're just kind of in a wait-and-see pattern in terms of who we're going to see and play," Callihan said. "I think after that meeting, we'll know a lot more."
In the meantime, UW's coaches are putting trust in their players to continue making smart decisions about the environments they put themselves in when they're not on campus or at practice. Testing will continue in some capacity once games begin, but should a student-athlete or coach test positive for COVID-19 at some point, that person will be quarantined again. Cuadrado said it's possible the soccer team could shut things down if multiple players test positive.
For every fall sport, the emphasis is on controlling what you can control in order to increase the likelihood of actually competing this season.
"I tell (our players) it's their season. They're going to determine how this goes," Cuadrado said. "And if we're all extremely careful, hopefully we can get to the end of this and still have everybody playing. That's the goal because, and I hate to say it, but I told them the healthiest team might win the conference. That could literally be the way this season goes."
Follow UW athletics beat writer Davis Potter on Twitter at @DavisEPotter.
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