Shenandoah University announced its plan to return to athletic competition on Tuesday afternoon, beginning with the start of winter sports at the beginning of the spring semester in late January.

The university’s announcement came in conjunction with one from the Old Dominion Athletic Conference that stated league competition would resume with men’s and women’s basketball on Jan. 23. The conference halted all intercollegiate competition in March at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

SU announced in July it was suspending competition for the rest of the 2020 calendar year, and Director of Intercollegiate Athletics Bridget Lyons said on Tuesday evening she repeatedly informed student-athletes and coaches over the past few months of a plan to play all 22 of the university’s sports in the spring.

“It’s nice for us to finally say, ‘OK, here we are moving forward and here is what it’s gonna look like,’” Lyons said shortly after Tuesday’s announcement was made. “Certainly I know our student-athletes and coaches have been looking forward to sharing that news, as well as parents and fans. There is a lot of planning and hard work that will now begin to make this all happen in the spring.”

Though a “blueprint” of the sports schedules exists, Lyons said there is still some “tweaking” to be done to them, adding that she and Associate Athletic Director Scott Musa would meet with SU coaches after Thanksgiving to go over the details of all of those schedules.

The timeline as it stood on Tuesday planned for a late-January start for winter sports — which at SU includes men’s and women’s basketball, men’s and women’s indoor track and field and men’s wrestling, which would be making its university debut — a mid-February start for the traditional fall sports and a spring sports schedule that, for now, stands as it was originally laid out. Those spring schedules could change, Lyons said, as it’s determined which non-conference opponents won’t be competing next spring and which non-league games can be played according to the ODAC’s standards for competition amid the pandemic.

Lyons stated that winter and fall sports schedules would be “conference centric,” though she added that there remains the opportunity to schedule non-conference games, particularly in the winter and spring sports where NCAA-sponsored national championships, at the moment, remain intact. There will be no national championships in fall sports, Lyons said, and those seasons will end with the conference tournament.

A news release from the ODAC states that the conference is committed to following “all established NCAA testing recommendations,” which Lyons said includes testing three days a week for sports that are deemed to present a higher risk of virus transmission. Lyons added that an ODAC subcommittee of athletic trainers will create a “standard operating procedure document” as well, and the conference is committed to following the NCAA’s ever-evolving resocialization principles, however those look when the ODAC resumes play.

“The conference has worked diligently to create a plan for all our student-athletes to continue their collegiate athletic experience in the spring,” ODAC Commissioner Brad Bankston stated in the conference’s news release. “I am pleased with the progress we have made and the plans we have created. While no one can control the pandemic, we can continue to follow local guidance, implement well-documented best practices regarding health and safety, and prepare for competition following the recommendations presented by the NCAA.”

Shenandoah’s news release also states that all student-athletes will go through a weeks-long “acclimatization period” before the start of each season, which Lyons said consists of making sure “you’re doing what you need to do to minimize the transmission of COVID-19, as well as to give your student-athletes the proper time to train and be ready for competition.”

All 22 of SU’s athletic teams returned to practice this fall while following various mitigation strategies and safety protocols put in place by the university, the NCAA, the ODAC and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Though Tuesday’s announcement represents a step in the right direction for an athletic department eager to return to the playing fields and courts, Lyons acknowledged that there is “absolutely” some concern as confirmed cases of COVID-19 continue to surge in Virginia and throughout the country.

The ODAC’s news release states that conference leadership will continue to “track the progress of COVID-19 and subsequent health and safety recommendations provided by local, state and national public health authorities.”

“Based on the state of Virginia and what guidelines are in place, certainly our decision that was made and announced today is contingent upon what the landscape is gonna look like in the beginning of January,” Lyons said. “As good as I feel about this decision — and again, this is our plan and we’ll certainly work towards this plan happening in the spring — obviously that can change, whether it be based on, again, the state guidelines or certainly any changes from the NCAA.”

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