Members of the Keene State Athletics Department have one primary goal for fall and winter sports: give them seasons in the spring semester. However, there are still quite a few hoops to jump through before that goal can be accomplished.
With the COVID-19 pandemic still not improving in the United States, some NCAA Division III conferences have already either suspended or cancelled play for their winter sports, including some conferences in New England that often compete with the Keene State’s conference, the Little East Conference (LEC). The three main conferences in New England that have done this so far include the New England Women’s and Men’s Athletics Conference (NEWMAC), the New England Small College Athletics Conference (NESCAC) and the Great Northeast Athletics Conference (GNAC).
Phil Racicot, the Director of Athletics and Recreation at Keene State, said that what’s happening with winter sports right now is starting to look similar to what happened with fall sports a few months ago.
“We’ve learned a lot in this timeframe, but it’s starting to get a familiar look, like in the summer when we were looking at fall sports and it was kind of like that domino effect where all the conferences said they’re not going to do fall sports one by one,” Racicot said. “At that point, almost everyone delayed a decision on winter sports to see how much more they could learn. And the truth is, not much has changed. Although we’ve learned more, the facts haven’t changed. So now we’re looking at a scenario where we’d have to make this decision on winter, and that’s really where the focus is.”
However, while there is concern about the likelihood of Keene State having fall and winter sports seasons in the spring semester, Racicot has expressed how much giving seasons to Keene State’s student-athletes truly means to him.
“Our goal is really to let these student-athletes do what they do best and do what they most want to do, and that’s compete,” Racicot said. “So we really want to provide a semblance of an experience that is relatively normal in such an abnormal circumstance. That’s really why we’re doing this. It’s really about the student-athletes. It’s not about me trying to sell tickets, this is purely and simply for the student-athlete experience.”
“When things got cancelled for the fall, one of the things that we committed to as a college and as a conference was that we had to be able to explore every opportunity for those fall sports that had their NCAA championship cancelled and had their LEC season cancelled,” Racicot continued. “At that point, we laid the groundwork for saying the fall sports would all have the opportunity to play in the spring.”
In order to make a fall or winter sports season possible, there are many details that need to be perfectly worked out. One of the most crucial aspects of being able to compete in NCAA competition will be COVID-19 testing, which the NCAA has set certain guidelines in place for already. Racicot said that for the winter sport of basketball specifically, COVID-19 testing might have to be ramped up.
“The NCAA recommendation for basketball is COVID-19 testing three times a week,” Racicot said. “That’s a recommendation, not a mandate at this point, but the other thing that is a mandate is you have to have a negative test result within 72 hours of playing. And we’ve seen firsthand on our own campus what happens when you’re in that phase where you’re full practice and there’s a positive test, a student who tests positive — that essentially renders the whole team in quarantine. So that’s a two-week layoff, you already have to build that into what your schedule is. So thinking of playing 20 to 30 basketball games from January to March is probably not realistic.”
Abe Osheyack, the Assistant Athletic Director at Keene State, expanded upon this, saying that there are different kinds of COVID-19 tests that student-athletes can take.
“The NCAA has expanded some testing around the sport of basketball, they’re recommending testing three times a week,” Osheyack said. “That could be a combination of either the PCR test, which is the nasal swab, or the antigen, which is the salivary test. The antigen test is not quite as accurate as the PCR test, so that’s why we’ve been sticking with the PCR test. The antigen test was something that the NBA experimented with, they were the first major organization to adopt it. It became available with FDA approval in October, but there’s still some questions as to the accuracy of it. There’s also a question of affordability, although it certainly is cheaper than a PCR test. But I have confidence that anybody we play will be meeting appropriate testing.”
Another major element involved in playing fall and winter sports seasons in the spring will be planning game schedules. This includes questions concerning who Keene State will play, when they will play, where they will play and how many games they will play. Racicot said that the LEC has a plan set in place for how many games each fall sport will end up playing.
“As far as the fall sports go, the window that we agreed to from a conference standpoint was around a six-week season, where if every member of the league participates, it would be eight games or matches,” Racicot said. “Field hockey is strange because it’s not just the LEC, it’s a combined conference with the MASCAC [Massachusetts State Collegiate Athletic Conference] — there’s 13 members. But in soccer and volleyball, it will basically be a straight eight. You will play every team one time, and there will be no conference championship or tournament because there is no NCAA championship for those sports this year. Then in field hockey, we actually looked at it and met with the athletic directors in the MASCAC and divided it into a north and a south so that there will be a champion of the north and a champion of the south, and those two champions will play each other. The sport that didn’t really get accounted for was cross country. The reason is because it overlaps; Almost every cross country student-athlete is a member of the indoor/outdoor track team. From that standpoint, we really won’t be competing in cross country at this point in the spring.”
As far as who the Owls will be competing against goes, both Racicot and Osheyack have said it is likely that Keene State will only compete against other LEC schools, with the chances of playing any non-conference opponents mostly out the window. However, there is a chance that there could be issues with different state’s and different school’s COVID-19 guidelines interfering with LEC play. Back in October, the Keene State fall sports teams had scheduled games with Rhode Island College, but according to Racicot, those games didn’t happen due to a sudden spike in COVID-19 cases in the state of Rhode Island, leading to the state of New Hampshire recommending that Keene State student-athletes not compete with Rhode Island College student-athletes that week. Racicot said that if fall and winter sports are going to compete, all LEC schools will have to stay up to date on each other’s school and state guidelines.
“What we’ve come to learn is that at least one of the schools, UMass Boston, has determined that they are not going to play the fall sports in the spring,” Racicot said. “Right now, there’s eight of the nine members that are committed to bringing back fall sports in the spring. It’s hard because every school has a different model of what type of instruction, how many students on campus, how many students remote. One of the things we found out in our attempt to play this past fall with Plymouth [State University] and Rhode Island College is that each state has its own set of circumstances. That’s something else that we’re going to have to navigate, those various collections of five different state authorities weighing in on what we’re doing. We have to stay on top of what’s happening in each state.”
“On our campus, there are folks I meet with that attend a statewide meeting, and at that meeting they review everything that’s going on in all the New England states with regard to COVID-19,” Racicot continued. “That week we were supposed to play Rhode Island College, by Monday or Tuesday morning I got a call from our campus representative at that meeting saying, ‘Hey, New Hampshire’s starting to look at Rhode Island with a spike [in cases] and may recommend we don’t travel there.’ So it’s really about communication and staying on top of things. We as a conference can all commit to a level of testing, but in some cases some states may have different challenges.”
“Right now, the state of Vermont is saying for collegiate athletics to be played, COVID-19 testing has to happen three times a week,” Racicot continued. “So we have to determine if we’re all just going to do three times a week, or if we’re going to meet the Castleton [University in Vermont] mandate the times that we play Castleton, so the week that we play Castleton, we test three times. And again, all that sounds great, and then by Friday it could change. That’s part of the angst of scheduling in this environment.”
Furthermore, Racicot and Osheyack have tossed around multiple ideas as to what a schedule for the KSC men’s and women’s basketball teams might look like when they plan to start playing in late January. One thing that could affect the basketball schedule in a positive way is a blanket waiver that the NCAA passed about a week ago, saying that due to COVID-19, any student-athlete who competes in NCAA competition this year will be granted an extra year of eligibility, no matter how many games they play.
“We have a couple versions of what a schedule would be,” Racicot said. “At one point, we agreed to kind of a round-robin in basketball, where you play every team in the conference once and then we would go into a conference tournament. It was tricky because at that point a lot of the discussion was about how many games you could schedule. Last week, that all got changed because a blanket waiver was approved by the NCAA, which means any student-athlete this year is going to get another year of eligibility if they want to use it. So we could play 12 games of basketball or we could play 20 games, it’s now all the same. We’ve even talked about formats for scheduling where basketball might look like baseball where you’re playing the same team twice in a weekend. Friday night, we might go up to Plymouth, and then on Saturday they might come play us. That way, we’re really only testing [for COVID-19] to play the same team.”
“One of the big features about the model of playing a team twice in a weekend is if you’re going to be testing three times a week, now you don’t have to get an extra test before you go to play somebody and you still get two games in,” Osheyack said. “Obviously there’s some cost attached to that. If you’re hosting, you’re going to have to pay more in some of your game management, some of your officials. If you’re going on the road, you have to pay for more food, more hotels. But it does save on the cost of testing a little bit. One model has talked about women on Tuesday, men on Wednesday and then flipping it for the next week. But in the double-home weekend, if your men are home, your women go on the road. So that also saves some time in the work throughout the week.”
All-in-all, Racicot said that the hope for winter sports is to start on time in mid-to-late January, and the hope for fall sports is to have competition in March and April.
Two more things that will need to be worked out in order for fall and winter sports competition to happen will be staffing games and using facilities. Racicot said that having more sports teams using Keene State’s facilities all at the same time could become challenging.
“There are facilities concerns, you’re now putting a lot of pressure on your facilities,” Racicot said. “Normally in spring it’s men’s and women’s lacrosse on the field, and now you’re talking about field hockey. Then you’re talking about the other resources of staffing those games and how to spread that all out throughout the spring semester. You’ve got the web streaming, the sports information coverage, the game management and athletic training. That gets really exacerbating, because now you’re putting ten pounds of stuff in a five-pound bag, so to speak. But again, we all agreed that from an institutional perspective that for the benefit of the student-athletes we have to make that effort.”
Furthermore, one of the most important parts of scheduling games will be getting officials for those games, and making sure those officials all have negative COVID-19 tests.
“We’re all still trying to figure out game officials and testing [for COVID-19] for game officials,” Racicot said. “When we were doing the planning to play Plymouth and RIC, we actually had the officials come and get tested on our campus. We had to make sure that they got in on that Wednesday so they were in that 72-hour window to referee on Saturday. Even when we’re putting student-athletes on a bus, we have to make sure that the bus drivers went through our testing protocol. There’s a lot of moving parts to what we’re planning, and it’s a huge undertaking. But again, if we could get a semblance of a season, it’s 100 percent worth it.”
“It’s not just us, it’s the other schools, it’s the bus drivers, it’s the officials, the staff working the game,” Osheyack said. “All of those things need to happen and need to come together perfectly, basically every single time, for a game to happen. We are not Major League Baseball; If somehow we found out about a positive test in the middle of a game, the game would be stopped immediately. We don’t have those kinds of luxuries.”
Overall, Racicot wants all of the sports to be able to play in the spring semester, and has said that he doesn’t see athletics itself as a bigger risk of transmitting COVID-19. He said that what student-athletes do outside of athletics will continue to be important, and that everyone at KSC has done a great job so far this fall semester.
“It’s a risk versus reward proposition,” Racicot said. “It’s really, really important that as a campus we’ve done an amazing job this semester, and we certainly want to be able to bring all of the students back in the spring. We want to make sure athletics is a part of that happening as opposed to being at risk for us not being able to come back. Clearly, student-athletes are a cross section of the campus population, so there have been positive tests in our community and in the student-athlete population, but we’ve learned how to manage through that, just like campus has learned how to manage through it. The idea is that we really haven’t been able to determine if someone tested positive because they played in a soccer scrimmage.”
“My son’s a high school athlete, they’ve played 16 games,” Racicot continued. “They’ve had zero instances of COVID-19 in playing 16 soccer games. There’s not much that you can do to convince me that by our students playing volleyball or soccer or field hockey that there’s a higher risk to transmit the virus. It’s so much more about everything else that we’re doing outside of the sport. But look, we’re bringing people together and putting them in close situations. We just have to determine what the risks are.”
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