With little more than a month before student-athletes are scheduled to report to campus, Shenandoah University remains committed to holding a fall sports season in 2020 – with a few tweaks – as the nation continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic.
The university announced Friday that it has pushed back the start date for fall sports competition to Sept. 11, a move that affects 20 contests that were previously scheduled for SU’s 10 fall sports teams. Shenandoah’s announcement mirrored the same one made on that same day by the Old Dominion Athletic Conference, which said in a statement that the later start allows its member schools “adequate time to welcome student-athletes to campus and properly resocialize with a focus on a safe return to competition.”
Shenandoah University Director of Intercollegiate Athletics Bridget Lyons said on Monday that the ODAC’s athletic directors have held regular discussions about the fall season throughout the summer and that SU and the rest of the conference had reached “that point where we need to make some decisions moving forward.”
“There’s certainly a lot going on,” Lyons said, “so as a group I think by setting a specific date for competition for both conference and non-conference kind of gave us the opportunity to then think about a return to campus and changes to our academic calendar, and then move back from that to figure out how we were gonna transition our student-athletes back to campus.”
Shenandoah’s plan includes an Aug. 10 start date for practice for the school’s football team, with the other nine fall teams to follow on Aug. 17, Lyons said. She noted that student-athletes would be monitored for two weeks before they arrive on campus and would continue to be monitored once there, and teams will face limitations on practices in their early stages.
Football, for example, won’t be permitted contact in practice for the first 10 days, Lyons said, and eventually will be eased into full-team practices.
Lyons added that regular on-campus COVID-19 testing of student-athletes remains a topic of discussion at the university.
“We have relied heavily on the athletic trainers in coming up with protocols as to how we hope this will work, keeping our student-athletes obviously as safe as possible,” said Lyons, who added that SU’s athletic department continues to monitor the guidelines put forth by the state, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the NCAA, the ODAC and the university.
“The tough part is it’s ever-changing,” she continued. “… It’s certainly concerning as you see institutions deciding either to not have all sports this fall or to eliminate and only focus in on certain sports that they feel they can move forward with and do so in a safe manner. I think even though as a group we are certainly working toward bringing our student-athletes back, we know certainly that that is gonna be reevaluated on a week-by-week basis and we’re gonna look to see whether we’re still making the right choices moving forward. It’s hard. It’s really difficult because you just don’t know, and the NCAA could come back and make some changes to what they feel is the best course forward.”
Though Lyons expressed optimism that a fall season would take place, she said there remains concern that the season may not be viable in the current climate as schools take a cautious approach to athletics.
Lyons noted that while the ODAC’s member schools are all committed to playing some type of fall season (conference schedules have been prioritized as a result of that unified stance, she said, and ODAC members are working together to facilitate any necessary schedule changes that could help eliminate overnight stays or crowded campuses), there still could be shakeups in Shenandoah’s non-conference schedule across the board.
Lyons said Shenandoah will ask non-conference opponents about what health and safety guidelines those schools have or will have put in place to address the threat of the spread of COVID-19, and if those guidelines “do not at least meet what we are doing (at SU), then we would not be moving forward to play that particular school.”
Lyons said she’s also heard of schools – some of them within the ODAC – that don’t plan on holding any non-conference games this fall, while others may choose to play only home games or outright cancel certain sports.
“Absolutely that could and probably will affect our schedule,” Lyons said.
As of Monday, the NCAA had not made any modifications to its fall championships schedules, Lyons said. At the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak in March, the NCAA canceled all 2020 winter and spring national championships.