Charmin Smith and her players reckoned they had been through the worst pandemic in 2020-21.
COVID-19 precautions had forced Cal’s women’s team to hold the first month of training outdoors on a tennis court with portable baskets. Each player had to have his own ball and was not allowed to hand it over.
Nine matches were postponed due to COVID outbursts, on their team or opponent, and they were missing five matches from playing the regularly scheduled 18 Pac-12 matches. They finished 1-16 overall.
“We really hoped things would be back to quote-uncite normal and we would be able to experience a season without disruption and get people back healthy,” Smith said. “That has not been the case.”
This has not been the case for many teams. As of midweek in Division I, 420 men’s matches and 476 women’s matches had been postponed or canceled due to coronavirus outbreaks, according to Associated Press studies, and COVID-19 has been present all the time, even though the sport is rolling towards the tournament season.
The Cal women are among the hardest hit as they have got seven Pac-12 matches out of their schedule because there was not enough time left to rearrange them. The Illinois women play their last eight games of the regular season over 21 days due to reshuffle and will still fall four below standard 18 Big Ten games.
The Cal State Bakersfield women get shorted six of their 18 Big West games. On the men’s side, IUPUI will only play 17 of its 22 Horizon League matches, and Little Rock will play 14 of its 18 Sun Belt Conference games. These three conferences declare that lost games are not contests and do not make them up.
Stop and start have created a cauldron of emotions for players in the middle greater concern about the mental health of athletes in general.
There is the disappointment of not being able to play. There is anger when players see other teams around the country being able to play when they can not. There is anxiety from the uncertainty of not knowing when or if they will play again. There is more pressure to win because the margin of error increases as the number of conference games decreases. There is frustration for players coming out of a COVID layoff because they have lost their fitness. There is added stress academically when rescheduled games come in quick succession and there is more missed teaching time.
Coaches said they made themselves available to talk to players struggling with the disruption and the players formed stronger bonds while leaning against each other.
“If you said there was no emotion in this, I would say it really is an emotional drain, as it would be for any human being,” Illinois coach Nancy Fahey said.
Cal played his first 12 games as planned and won nine. Then came the first of three COVID breaks, two caused by positive tests among Cal staff.
The Bears (12-10, 2-8 Pac-12) played only two games in January, had to cancel several training sessions and were deficient to others. They have played seven games in a row since coming out of their most recent break, but end up playing only 11 of their 18 Pac-12 games. The record will show 12 conference matches, but one was a lost victory.
“It’s the end of February and if we had the extra games in January we would be a different team,” Smith said. “But I am also proud of how we have pulled it together. We have not completely fallen apart and are making some progress. “
Illinois (6-17, 1-11 Big Ten) played only five games in 45 days over a stretch, had players coming and going from COVID isolation and could not hold quality drills during the most important time of the season.
“We are disappointed with the record,” Fahey said. “It’s hard to get some momentum going. Coaches do not want to make excuses. We want to go out and play and compete, but it’s hard when you have no rhythm in your season. We want to live with it and do our best. “
COVID breaks combined with injuries hit the men’s teams at Little Rock (8-17, 3-10) and IUPUI (3-23, 1-14).
Little Rock coach Darrell Walker said his team has used 15 or 16 different starting lineups and has missed 125 men’s games. In one match, seven players were out with injuries and some of those available just came from a viral infection.
“You try to practice, and guys get tired so fast that you have to take breaks every three or four minutes,” Walker said. “My guys really had COVID. They had bad symptoms with it, so when they came back it was not good.”
COVID-19 hit IUPUI first-year coach Matt Crenshaw’s team in the low season, and the Jaguars did not have enough healthy bodies to play five-on-five most of the summer. When a player was tested positive during the season, teammates who were vaccinated but who were considered close contacts were not given access to the facilities of the athletics department.
“So they basically sit at home for two weeks or 10 days,” Crenshaw said, “and then you expect them to go and play.”
A number of injuries have left the Jaguars with just six healthy players since the end of January – “Iron Six”, as Crenshaw calls them.
“They’re competitive, they’re actually playing the best basketball we’ve ever played. All the things you want, they give them,” he said. “These are life lessons. That’s what sports can do. They can help you with life lessons. “
For the Cal State Bakersfield women, it has been two years of hard lessons. Roadrunners (4-16, 3-8) had three COVID breaks wiped out seven games last season. This season started with coach Greg McCall coming down with COVID-19 and missing two games. The first of the team’s two breaks came before Christmas, and the Roadrunners had no basketball activity for 20 days, playing three games on a 42-day stretch.
“I never expected we would be hit again with it, not with the size it hit us,” McCall said. “It really started last season. You thought this season would be different.”
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