When November 2021 hit, it was a finally a reality that all Slippery Rock University (SRU) teams had officially returned to playing. Both basketball teams had long awaited their homecoming. Neither team had hit the court in nearly two years, but the time was finally here. The question was and still is though: how will COVID-19 affect this season?
In the fall, not a lot changed. With the emergence of the COVID-19 vaccine, it even seemed like things were going to get better and maybe, just maybe the mask mandate would be lifted. There was hope all semester long.
Those hopes never came to fruition, but more variants did. Right as the fall seasons ended, basketball slowly crept up. Of course, it was going to be basketball’s problem. They had narrowly avoided it in 2020, but they lost a whole year already.
They weren’t the only sport to lose that year, but for some reason it felt like they had the longest wait. Spring sports made their comeback only a few weeks after their season would have concluded. They could’ve been the first to return, but it just wasn’t possible at the time.
For spring 2021 there were a ton of guidelines and rules to follow when it came to trying to keep players safe. In order to keep players on the field all precautions were taken: limited capacity at events, wearing masks at all time and weekly testing.
Skip to now, and both basketball teams are back in Morrow Field House playing games. But, things are still changing every day.
“[COVID-19] has effected everything,” Coach Robert McGraw said.
Compared to the fall, it’s a lot harder to stop the transmission of COVID-19 when all sports are inside. When sports were outside, it made the process a lot easier. Spectators didn’t have to wear masks, although they were encouraged too. Vaccinated players didn’t have to test, and cases were down. But just as The Rock women’s basketball team hit a groove, in swooped COVID-19.
“We got to 10-3 and we were in the others receiving votes in the Atlantic region, but then we had a COVID-19 shutdown,” McGraw said. “We weren’t allowed to practice or play games for eight days, and we haven’t won a game since.”
The Rock women were in the midst of a turnaround that saw them win 10 of their first 13 games. In comparison, they won just seven games in 2019-2020. The COVID-19 spike hit the entire nation, and The Rock women were no exception to it.
Neither were The Rock men. They also have had to reschedule multiple games due to COVID-19 outbreaks.
Both teams were also affected when SRU administration made the decision to shut out all spectators. The decision was made before the double header on Jan. 29, when The Rock welcomed both California University of Pennsylvania (Cal-U) teams. The decision came after fans had been ignoring the mask mandate that’s been in place on campus for almost the entirety of the past two years.
In those games, both teams struggled. The first game saw Cal-U men’s team encouraging their female team and making noise in the away side bleachers.
“The Cal men didn’t do anything inappropriate or anything like that and I’ve said that, but to face that in your own building [hurt because the girls feed off of the crowd’s energy],” McGraw said.
That noise made all the difference according to McGraw, because what was supposed to be a home game suddenly felt like an away game.
“I can’t speak to how it affected the players, but obviously it had some effect on them because they couldn’t have their family or friends there,” McGraw said. “But I was disappointed in the decision because we weren’t going to allow our student athletes to, at a minimum, have their parents there after they had an entire year taken away from them, and two players like Daeja Quick and Jamiyah Johnson, to not be able to have family there was highly disappointing.”
The ban was lifted a week later, and fans were allowed back to see a double header against Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP). Before each game both McGraw and the Men’s Coach Ian Grady pleaded with fans to keep on masks and follow protocols so that they could continue to play in front of a crowd.
“If you love college basketball or you’re a college basketball coach or player, playing in an environment like that is what it’s all about,” Grady said.
That environment helped The Rock men keep pace with one of the best teams in the conference, IUP. They lost on a last second three and a turnover helped seal the deal. Two days later, they traveled to Indiana and played in front of no one. That made a difference. This time instead of losing by five, they lost by 11.
COVID-19 has taken some of the “mojo” from both teams. After the layoffs, both teams have faced losing slumps. The Rock women have now hit eight losses in a row. The men have lost six of their last seven.
As things continue to roll along, both teams will continue to look to find their winning ways once again, but this season is undoubtedly different than before. They’ve had to face all sorts of protocols and things can change at a moments notice: as seen when spectators weren’t allowed in the building.
They’re down to the final stretch. February is it, and as they inch closer and closer to the season finale, the protocols stay the same.
If there’s one message they could get to The Rock faithful and anyone else who attends games, it would simply be: keep your mask on, so the players can continue to play in front of friends and family.