While many Division I athletic conferences are currently resigned to trudge through a season full of uncertainty, the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference, a prominent Division II athletic conference, was one of the first conferences to postpone fall sports back in July. However, with the difficult decision came the opportunity to plan for a way that those affected by the postponement would have the ability to compete for PSAC titles, national titles — even just one last hurrah as a college athlete.
That does not mean that Slippery Rock Athletic Director Paul Lueken and the rest of the PSAC ADs did not feel confident in the plan that they had developed originally to attempt to play sports in the fall.
“We, as athletic directors of the PSAC, have been having meetings all summer,” Lueken said. “We worked through a plan to come back, using social distancing and resocialization, and had a model set up with what the NCAA had initially given us.”
Lueken acknowledged that Slippery Rock did not have as much time as Division I institutions in terms of a resocialization period for its student-athletes, but he felt confident that a three week period would have been sufficient in returning fall sport student-athletes to campus and getting them ready to compete in already altered seasons.
The plan was to monitor student-athletes every day, with said student-athletes filling out questionnaires and having their temperatures taken before entering any athletic facility on campus.
As a Division II university with limited resources, that was the only option realistically available this season. The opportunities for testing and getting the results back in a timely manner pale in comparison to those opportunities at Power Five universities. With how the NCAA expects schools to report tests and cases, Slippery Rock had no chance to keep up.
“Overall, with what the NCAA required in terms of overall testing, it kind of blew us out of the water,” Lueken said. “[It was] disappointing because I think we worked really hard at it.”
Lueken said he understands and respects the decision of university presidents to postpone the season, as some campuses more so than others would have too high of a hill to climb.
Despite two Power Five conferences having already called off their respective seasons (Big 10 and Pac-12), the Southeastern Conference, the Atlantic Coast Conference and the Big-12 remain determined to continue with athletics this season. In the cases of the Big 10 and Pac-12, Lueken felt that Division I in general attempted to come back too soon.
“They had to have total control like they do… some of them feel like they have to,” Lueken said. “I was at D-I before, so I get it. That’s what really hurt: when D-I couldn’t control it how they wanted to control it, and I’m not so sure they’re not going to be able to control it, but there’s going to be cases. What kind of risks do you want to take, and that’s the kind of questions the presidents had to ask.”
Ultimately, for the PSAC at least, that risk to student-athletes proved to be too much, along with how difficult it would have been to actively control and monitor the COVID-19 situation at the individual campus level.
“Playing football or any sport, there’s a risk,” Lueken said. “There’s a risk you’re gonna get hurt, get a concussion, get a severe injury, those risks are always there. How much more risk were you willing to take with the coronavirus?”
With the decision to postpone all athletics at Slippery Rock until the start of the next calendar year coming in the middle of July, it gave ample time for the PSAC ADs to begin working on a plan for how sports will operate in the spring. It also gave student-athletes time to adjust to a season in which they would not be competing in competition or even organized practices.
With the fall semester ending in November for Slippery Rock this year, Lueken hopes to be able to get practices and team activities for men’s and women’s basketball sometime in December, COVID willing, of course. That time would also be a good point for SRU to begin implementing its mitigation efforts for teams actually being on campus and competing, Lueken said.
Depending on the decision for when volleyball will compete, Lueken was optimistic that both basketball teams and the volleyball team would be able to start in December.
The plan for the spring semester is not quite ironed out yet, with a conference-wide call yesterday to actually discuss spring schedules, but Lueken said the spring season will likely go one of two ways.
The first “thought process,” as Lueken called them, both of which have been NCAA devised, would have all fall sports play 50% or less of the maximum number of allowed games, so that student-athlete would be able to maintain eligibility going into the fall of 2021.
“Let’s take the sport of soccer, 14 is the maximum number of games we can play this year, so if we played a seven-game schedule of soccer, all the kids that played in the spring semester wouldn’t use a year of eligibility,” Lueken said. “So, if you had some senior who wanted to come back for a championship season, you could. Because there are no NCAA championships put on by the NCAA in the spring.”
With the NCAA canceling all fall sport championships, there would be no national playoff hopes for teams like football or women’s soccer, but since “playoff” games would not count against the official schedule, the chance for a watered-down PSAC tournament remains on the table.
The only potential drawback with the 50% or less plan would be if a team does not compete in at least 50% of the games, the sport would not be counted as an NCAA sponsored sport.
The second thought process would, using football as an example, be a seven game schedule where every Western division opponent is played with no non-conference games.
But with a seven game season, without a real playoff for any team, those seniors who want to compete for a national title would likely have to sit out the season in order to preserve eligibility. Lueken said those players would be able to practice but unable to compete in games.
According to Lueken, as of Tuesday before the meeting, the ADs were somewhere in the middle, with no path really chosen yet.
“We’ll have schedules probably determined for the spring in, I think if I remember the timeline, we’re going to come up for a recommendation after Wednesday’s meeting for the presidents,” Lueken said. “So, by mid-Septemeber, we’ll have a good idea of what we’re going to try to do.”
In the meantime, fall sport student-athletes will need to continue working on their conditioning and training largely without their teammates and coaches. An online semester is not exactly new either, and Lueken praised the spring sport student-athletes for their commitment in the classroom, finishing among the highest overall GPAs in school history.
“A lot of our student-athletes will look at this as a minor bump in the road,” Lueken said. “Gotta stay in shape so we can stay ready to play in the spring.”
Everything will be voluntary this semester, with coaches having very little 1v1 time with their athletes. However, Slippery Rock will supply its student-athletes with off-season workout programs.
With the lack of students on campus this semester, Slippery Rock has been able to give extended availability for student-athletes to train and workout on campus in some capacity.
“We’ve set up availability for student-athletes to use — for example, we’ve set up two soccer fields already lined and two lacrosse fields already lined,” Lueken said. “So, those two teams can go out and work on their skills on their own.”
Bob DiSpirito Field has also been cut in half, figuratively, with football occupying one half and field hockey the other. The track at Mihalik-Thompson Field has also been split into segments to allow student-athletes to socially distance while working out. The number of people allowed on any individual field will be limited to further promote social distancing.
There will be hour blocks at the newly finished Jerry Bejbl Weight Training Center at Mihalik-Thompson with coaches and staff there at all times to monitor for safety purposes. Lueken expects most student-athletes to come with a teammate or partner.
Student-athletes will sign up online for a time slot in order to be able to work out on any given day, with a coach there — likely not their own coach — to monitor.
Lueken said there have been a few temporary weight areas set up to allow more student-athletes to socially distance while working out. The track team will have benches and squat racks set up near the track.
Lueken said he was very appreciative of SRU President Dr. William Behre and Chief Student Affairs Officer Dr. David Wilmes for even having the opportunity to allow student-athletes to come to campus to work out.
With the ever-changing nature of the pandemic, Lueken said it is unlikely things will go completely according to plan, but he is ready to work toward a successful fall semester.
“We’ll learn as we go and make adjustments as we need to,” Lueken said. “There might be time blocks throughout the day where there are student-athletes that are available and want to work out. Okay, we’ll figure that out in the first couple weeks. We’re not starting actual physical workouts until August 31, to let our student-athletes in the area get settled in.”
After all, Lueken is fully aware of what is at stake in a few short months.
“We know that if we’re going to be playing in the spring that we’ve got to follow the rules and not contribute to the spread of coronavirus in the Slippery Rock area,” Lueken said. “So we can be ready to go in the spring.”
If student-athletes, or anyone for that matter, experience symptoms or have a fever, Lueken expects them to stay at home and utilize the health center to treat themselves, whether it is COVID-19 or not.
Despite the lack of games and the uncertainty surrounding its return, life goes on. The Division II is allowing coaches to get back on the recruiting trail in September, meeting with recruits and going to high schools — if allowed by the high school. Campus visits will be limited, but there will be a select number of students allowed to visit campus.
As has always been the case in a close-knit athletic department, Lueken said this year, more than any other, Slippery Rock is one big team. Everyone is helping in areas not traditionally expected and working hand-in-hand.
“Once we know the rules of the game, which we do, we know the expectations of the president and the university that everybody has for us, then we’ll use those rules and play those games,” Lueken said.
Lueken has been the AD at Slippery Rock for a long time now, and he has seen his fair share of highs and lows while in charge of the athletic department. Even he did not expect anything like a pandemic to ever impact the school like this.
“I’ve just finished my 26th year at Slippery Rock, starting my 27th year, and I have to tell you, this is something I never even dreamed of. I know we had pandemic plans in the past, but I didn’t ever think that it would be this.”