Notes from the Field
Athletics Rolls with the Uncertainty
By Vince Moore
Furman head football coach Clay Hendrix expects a certain amount of stress and anxiety in even the best of seasons, but he encountered a whole new world of uncertainty when the Paladins played football this past spring during the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to the season being moved from fall to spring, which was disorienting enough, Hendrix never knew what might be coming next. Southern Conference member Chattanooga canceled its season on March 29, just one week after beating the Paladins, 17-14, with a team at full strength. Wofford followed suit a little later, opting out of its season and forcing the Paladins to cancel their final home game of the season. Both Chattanooga and Wofford cited being unable to field enough players due to injuries and “COVID-19 opt-outs.”
“It was unlike anything I’ve ever been part of,” Hendrix says. “Because we have so many players, we had to do things like rearrange the locker room, hold groups out of practice and stagger times when players could be in the weight room. And I’ve never had another team on our schedule cancel a game.”
Nothing, of course, was normal during the height of the COVID-19 period, whether one was working from home, going to the grocery store or playing a Division I sports schedule. Like all universities that chose to play sports in 2020-21, Furman faced the challenges of keeping its 350 student-athletes safe when the nature of their sports required varying levels of contact with others.
The bulk of that responsibility fell to Elaine Baker, Furman’s associate athletics director and director of sports medicine. She developed and implemented the department’s pandemic safety precautions and testing strategies, which had to fall in line with the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as the guidelines of the NCAA and Southern Conference. Competition decisions were made by conferences and not the NCAA, so it was determined that cross-country and basketball would be played in the fall. The rest of Furman’s sports would be played in the spring, with basketball spanning both the fall and spring. The NCAA categorized sports as high, moderate and low based on their virus-transmission risk. That risk dictated how frequently student-athletes had to be tested. The players of all sports during season were tested weekly with those in high-risk sports being tested multiple times within the week.
When Furman’s athletes weren’t in competition, the university’s safety protocols were particularly strict. Student-athletes were required to wear masks during all practices and weight room activities held inside. Masks could be removed during outdoor conditioning when individuals were distanced 15 feet apart. Teams were tested weekly when in-season, and athletes were screened daily with temperature checks and screening questions. Each team was assigned a Sports Medicine staff member to closely monitor the health of the team on an ongoing basis. “Our protocols were much more stringent than that of the student body,” Baker says. “Our goal was to provide athletic activities without increasing the transmission risk on campus.”
Any season was better than none
Doug Allison, the men’s head soccer coach, says there were many adjustments his team had to make. Playing in the spring instead of the fall led to different class schedules, which meant some players might be in afternoon labs instead of at practice. And then there was the human side of the equation, where his players could only have limited contact with friends outside the team. “They’re college kids who just want a normal life, so this wasn’t easy for them,” Allison says. “It was probably even harder for the freshmen since this was their first college experience.” But having any kind of soccer season was better than having none. Allison credits Baker, her staff and the team’s trainer, James Finnen, for taking good care of the men’s soccer program throughout the school year, which resulted in the Paladins winning the conference’s regular season championship. “We were very lucky that we could train and play games,” Allison says. “(Athletics Director) Jason Donnelly and Elaine Baker were very clear about what we needed to do to stay safe and be able to practice and compete.” Baker says she was impressed with how the coaches and players held up their end of the bargain, and she recognized the “herculean” effort of her staff, who administered nearly 7,000 tests over the year and often came in at 5 a.m. to test student-athletes who had 8 o’clock classes. “It took a tremendous team approach for us to be successful,” Baker says. “We were able to keep the teams intact without having to pause and shutdown activities for any length of time due to infection. Our common goal was to offer our student-athletes a safe environment for their athletic experience, and we were all rowing in the same direction.”
All in all, things worked out pretty well. All 18 sports completed their seasons and six teams won either regular season or conference tournament championships (men’s and women’s cross country, women’s tennis, women’s soccer, men’s soccer, and women’s lacrosse). All but men’s soccer and women’s lacrosse also earned spots in their respective NCAA tournaments. A handful of Furman games were either postponed or cancelled because of COVID-19 issues, but none were due to the university’s health situation, according to Todd Duke, associate athletics director for facilities and game operations. Furman football probably had the worst luck of any team, with games being cancelled and two league teams quitting in mid-season. But Hendrix says he was glad his team was able to play, and it will help the Paladins when they get back on the field in the fall. “We didn’t have the season we wanted, but I’m proud of our kids and I don’t think they could have handled it any better than they did,” he said. “We didn’t have a single player who opted out of the season. Everybody wanted to play, and they were willing to make the sacrifices to do so.” Besides, Hendrix says, there was a silver lining to the COVID-19 season. “We don’t have a long time before we’ll play again in the fall, which means I don’t have to stew over the season for nine months.”