Have you ever played a game of tag where no one knows who is ‘it’?
That was how head coach of the women’s basketball team Keith Boucher described competing during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I would say COVID is like when you’re at recess in elementary school and you’re playing a game of tag,” said Boucher. “But in this, you’re playing a big game of tag and you don’t know who’s ‘it’ and you just hope that you do the things you have to do to stay virus free.”
The Keene State College Owls have been playing this game of tag for almost a year now, however this semester has already seen some big changes in how athletics are being run.
Over winter break, student-athletes on the men’s basketball, women’s basketball and swim and dive teams began competing against schools in the Little East Conference (LEC), opening the door for real competition to take place during this coming spring semester.
With the proven possibility of interconference competition for all Owls teams, this leaves many questions to be answered.
How is the Keene State athletic department keeping athletes safe?
Will there be championships?
Does this mean fall sports will get a chance at competing again?
How do the players and coaches who have already been competing feel so far?
Let’s find out.
Student-Athlete Testing Protocol:
One of the first lines of defense against the spread of COVID-19 is frequent testing and that is something that student-athletes, as well as other special populations at Keene State College, are heavily involved in this semester.
Keene State’s Assistant Athletic Director Abe Osheyack said the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) is requiring basketball teams to be tested three times a week and all other sports teams to be tested two times a week.
Osheyack explained that there are several specific circumstances that may require more testing for certain teams at certain times. Different states have different requirements in order for collegiate competition to take place.
“There are other specific rules in other states around timing of tests, so Massacheussetts, Maine and Rhode Island all require a PCR test done within 72-hours of the start of the game,” said Osheyack. “So, if it is a one o’clock tip on a Saturday, tests must be done within 72-hours previous to that. If it goes beyond that then the test is invalid.”
Osheyack also explained that some states, for example Vermont, require all sports teams to be tested three times a week before competing.
“If we ever have to go on the road to play Castleton, we need to test all athletes, in whatever sport that may be, three times a week,” said Osheyack.
Keene State Director of Athletics and Recreation Phil Racicot explained that the increase in testing also adds to student-athlete responsibility, a topic that was touched on during a town hall with all Owl athletes.
“It adds to the conduct,” said Racicot. “You can’t miss a test and play.”
Boucher explained how seriously athletic departments in the Little East Conference (LEC) take weekly testing and having a negative test from every player on their team prior to competing.
“[University of Massachusetts] Dartmouth was coming [to Keene State College] on [January 30] and they got on the bus and came to find out they had a player on their team that had a TNP, test not processed,” said Boucher. “If you have one of those you can’t participate because you don’t know if you’re positive or negative. They literally turned around and went home.”
Osheyack also added that student-athletes are not the only group being tested multiple times a week this semester.
“Any of the special populations that might mix with external groups like student teachers, nursing practicum students, anybody like that [are] all getting tested two times a week,” said Osheyack. “Because athletes are going on the road, interacting with other students at other campuses in a way that the general student body is not, that was what drove the decision to include them in the twice per week testing group.”
Little East Conference Championship:
Something missing, that has not gone unnoticed, over the past two semesters of athletics has been any form of championships. Going from being a high performing school in the Little East Conference Championships to not being able to compete at all is a tough pill to swallow, however this semester could mark the end of the championship drought.
“We plan on having an LEC championship in basketball. It would be a tournament at the conclusion of the season,” explained Racicot.
However, it is important to note that this does not mean that any winter sports teams should be expecting to hit the national championship stage anytime soon. Racicot said that the NCAA made the decision in late January to cancel all winter championships in Division III after they surveyed Division III colleges across the country.
“From an NCAA perspective… The decision was made to cancel winter championships,” said Racicot. “What transpired from an NCAA perspective in Division III was that there was a declaration. So, every Division III school had to declare that if the NCAA was having a championship in these winter sports, would we compete? Obviously, from a Keene State perspective, the answer was yes. But… of all the Division III members in the country, 60% of them have to be playing that sport in order for us to have that championship and all those numbers came in right around 50%. So in the end the decision was pretty simple for the NCAA.”
Racicot said that another declaration will be made once spring sports begin to decide if the NCAA will hold spring sport championships, but as of right now, the “NCAA is on board with spring championships and so is the LEC.”
As for winter sports however, basketball is not the only sport expecting to face off in an LEC championship soon.
Head coach of the swim and dive team Chris Woolridge explained that his team would also be competing in a virtual LEC championship meet at the end of their season.
“[The swim and dive] schedule is a lot different,” said Woolridge. “It’s all interconference dual meets which is something new for us, that’s not normally how we operate. We will hopefully be swimming all the teams in the Little East at least once and then doing a virtual invite meet, a virtual LEC championship meet, at the very end, probably in the third week of March.”
Head coach of the men’s basketball team Ryan Cain said, championships aside, that it is important to note how significant what the Little East Conference is doing right now really is.
“[The LEC is] one of the very few leagues, the only league in New England, right now to be competing in winter athletics,” said Cain. “When it comes to conference play some schools are going to play some individual games starting at this point right now.”
Fall Sports Taking to the Field:
With the new safety measures and promises of real competition with interconference schools, the next question becomes: Will fall athletes get a slice of this pie?
The answer is quite simple.
“What we had all agreed to in the Little East Conference was that we would do our very best to provide opportunities in the spring semester for fall sports,” explained Racicot. “We have plans for those fall sports, so for us it would be men’s soccer, women’s soccer, field hockey, to have a limited schedule in a window that would be late March through April.”
Racicot explained that everything is on a day-by-day schedule and specific dates of competition for fall sports will be determined later down the line, once the spring sporting schedule is more solidified.
Cain, who also holds the title of Scheduling Coordinator for the Keene State Athletic Department, explained that schedules for all sports have been constantly changing due to the circumstances they are all trying to play in.
“Each coach, obviously with all these postponements, will work directly with the athletic director and administration at our school and they will in turn work with the athletic directors and administrators at other schools,” said Cain. “Games are getting moved around left and right.
Not everyone is staying healthy all the way through, it’s the nature of what we are going through. Obviously, we are playing in the middle of a pandemic so some games will get postponed, some games will get cancelled.”
Racicot explained that each fall sports team has a set timeframe this spring semester where competitions will take place, however specific dates within those timeframes will be decided later.
Safety is Priority:
Safety in sports is a term that has coined an entirely different meaning over the past year.
Before, it meant concussion prevention, wearing protective gear, mouth guards, penalties for getting too physical, etc.
While those are all still important when thinking about safety in sports, COVID-19 has created an entire new layer of what being safe means, in both competing and practicing.
Racicot said that the athletic department plans to follow a similar protocol when it comes to teams beginning to practice as they did during the fall semester.
“What we are trying to do for these first couple weeks is to start slowly and start [practicing] in smaller groups,” explained Racicot. “If there is a positive that occurs on [a] team, what we are trying to prevent initially in these first few weeks is that the entire team has to go and quarantine. When we are in those pods it is pretty simple to know ‘okay well if there is a positive and that positive was in that pod then only the pod might have to be quarantined.’”
Racicot explained that winter sports who have been on campus since early January are currently in full-team practices, however spring sports who are just returning to campus will start small and slowly increase in practice size.
As for competition, Racicot said that there will be a few differences between the way winter sports games are run and spring sports games will be run. Racicot explained that this is primarily because of the spaces they compete in.
“The big difference [between winter sports and spring sports] is that you’re outside,” said Racicot when asked about any new safety regulations while competing. “The concern with indoor sports is really about ventilation… for spring sports you will see some adaptations as far as spreading people out along the sidelines. Dugouts are tricky with softball and baseball, we are looking at ways that will limit the number of people that are in the dugout.”
Racicot also explained that one of the biggest changes to competition this semester is no more spectators being allowed at games.
Coaches and Players Perspective:
Now, it is one thing to read about these things. The new testing protocol, the outside competition, the changes during competition, etc. However, the men’s basketball, women’s basketball and swim and dive teams have been living through all these changes for the past month.
So, what do they think?
“There is a tremendous amount of work that has to be done just to make sure that these games actually come off,” said Boucher when asked about his thoughts on how the winter break season has gone. “My hat is off to all the people that are coordinating this effort because they have done a tremendous job.”
Cain held similar sentiments when asked the same question, saying that his entire team says thank you to everyone who is involved in giving them a chance to compete.
“It’s great to highlight the fact that we appreciate the opportunity to compete,” said Cain. “Our guys are very thankful for that and we want to give a special shout out to the athletic administration in our area and all the way up to the college administration and the support that we have from our president to be able to compete in a safe manner. So, a special shout out to everyone who has put all the work in to make sure we have this opportunity.”
Sophomore guard on the men’s basketball team Nick Redden spoke highly of the season so far, saying that he is thankful for the opportunity and excited to see how the rest of the season goes.
“This whole season has been a crazy experience for me,” said Redden. “It’s definitely been hard practicing not knowing if you’re even going to play. We have had games canceled the day before we were supposed [to compete] which was a killer sometimes. Playing without fans was definitely very weird when we first started playing games, but as the season has gone on, I’ve gotten a little used to it. Having no fans puts a bigger purpose in our bench and how loud they are. We have really had to create our own energy in our games. Our coaches have been preaching about staying in our team’s bubble so we have the best chance to continue playing. With testing multiple times a week, there is really no place to slip up. Our team has done a great job at staying motivated and focused throughout this difficult season which has allowed us to play some good games so far this year.”
Men’s and women’s basketball and swim and dive have games and meets currently scheduled in the following weeks.
A year ago, on the very day of this article being published, men’s and women’s basketball competed at Plymouth State University in the first round of the Little East Conference championships.
Both Owls teams lost to their respective opponents, however on that day a promise was made by both coaches that ‘we will be back’.
A year later, a lot has happened but that promise of ‘we will be back’ still stands.
“We talked about five P’s with the student-athletes the other night,” said Racicot. “We have to have patience, no one knows all the answers, I don’t, you don’t, coaches don’t… We always have to have plans, we have to have protocols, that’s a word I hope I don’t have to say after 2022 very much, and we have to pivot. Things change, you might find out on the day that you are going to have a game that it’s cancelled. And people, in the end it’s all about the people.”
Claire Boughton can be contacted at: