All Sports Return to Competition during COVID-19

Macalester+swim+practice%2C+dive+practice%2C+and+Women%E2%80%99s+water+polo+have+been+taking+place+at+Riley+Pool+since+January+after+Minnesota+gyms+were+shut+down+last+November.+All-student+lap+swim+is+once+again+available+as+of+this+week.+Photo+by+Libby+Sykes+%2722.+

Macalester swim practice, dive practice, and Women’s water polo have been taking place at Riley Pool since January after Minnesota gyms were shut down last November. All-student lap swim is once again available as of this week. Photo by Libby Sykes ’22.

Matthew Sullivan and Libby Sykes

 

April is a busy month for Macalester’s competitive sports, with fall, winter and spring sports all competing in limited intercollegiate schedules simultaneously. Due to precautionary measures against COVID-19, Macalester’s fall and winter sports deemed high risk for spreading the virus have now started a limited competition season of four games with one or two other intercollegiate teams apiece. Spring sports are also beginning to compete in a usual Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) schedule. 

Based on scheduling, safety and travel restrictions, some sports will have fewer games than other sports. High-risk winter sports like men’s basketball and women’s water polo are playing a four-game scheduled set with one team only, while women’s basketball is playing two games each against two teams each in April. Football, soccer and volleyball, all fall sports, will have a similar two-weekend, four-game competition schedule in April. Spring sports will play against only MIAC teams.

 

Athletic Protocols 

Macalester’s on-campus athletes have been living in Kirk Hall exclusively with other athletes in an attempt to reduce risk of COVID-19 transmission to other students. 

There are two testing protocols that Macalester Athletics has put in place: the standard, non-competition protocol that takes place while the Scots are not in season, which includes testing 25% of each team weekly, and competition season protocol that tests three times a week for three weeks before and during competition.

According to women’s water polo coach Scott Reed, the team is playing Wisconsin’s Carthage College for four games and are testing frequently. Because the sport is forced to be played maskless in the water, Reed said the sport has had to take specific precautions based on National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) reports.

“They’re doing asymptomatic testing right now and then they’ll be switching into competition testing which will be testing three times a week,” Reed said. “Cost of the testing has to be factored in, so that’s why we’re also getting our games accomplished in a short period of time, very similar to what basketball is doing.”

Carthage will also have to test its team three more times before competition on April 9. It was decided that the water polo team, like the rest of Macalester’s teams, would not travel overnight  for any competitions, and are therefore not participating in the regular conference schedule. 

“I think they’re very happy that they are going to be able to compete and I think they’re very happy to be able to practice as well, from my own perspective as the coach,” Reed said.

Spring Sports

Assistant Women’s Cross Country Coach Lorna Caballero wrote in an email to The Mac Weekly that mask-wearing guidance from Macalester have changed between the modules, but the track team has been able to practice in Macalester’s surrounding neighborhood, the indoor track and the outdoor track.

“The athletes have been taking the mask mandates seriously during practice, and aside from discomfort (which can be worked around by having a fresh mask available to switch into), they are taking things in stride as the pandemic guidance changes day to day,” Caballero wrote. “The track team has had time trials and inter-squad competition fully masked, and are waiting to finalize the spring competition schedule.”

Track and Field Head Coach Daniel Schofer wrote in an email to The Mac Weekly that  the track season will extend into May, 

“Our team members have been very resilient during this challenging year,” Schofer wrote. “It has been so much different from a normal year/season, but we’re all doing our best and looking forward to more normal seasons in the future.”

Spring sports like tennis, baseball and golf will play a MIAC schedule with no non-conference games, unlike the approach taken by some other MIAC schools. Bethel University’s men’s and women’s tennis team played a slate of matches in Orlando, Fla., between March 13 and 17, with the Bethel baseball team also making a trip to Florida and playing five games, according to their website. All three of these teams have games scheduled in Minnesota within a week of returning, but none will be played against the Scots for at least two weeks after the end of these trips.

Baseball and softball are scheduled for all-conference seasons as well. These sports will be taking place outside with a limited spectator policy. 

The MIAC has stated that spectators will not be allowed at on-campus indoor sporting events and that schools can set their own policies for outdoor events. At Macalester, there will be limited spectators at each event. They all must be masked, socially-distanced and seated only with their pod. Only Macalester community members (students, faculty and staff) are permitted to attend these events. This policy will continue indefinitely.

For teams like swim and dive, there will be no competition on an intercollegiate level. The MIAC had already completed their swimming season, so Macalester’s swim and dive team is only competing internally after they held their first time trial.

Traditionally Fall and Winter Sports

Fall sports of football, soccer and volleyball will take part in two weekends of competition in April. Football, a high-risk sport, will practice and compete in one internal competition with masks under helmets. Cross country did not compete in fall but have integrated into the track team.

MIAC has offered some flexibility in winter sports competition, not recognizing a regular season conference champion in basketball or hockey for the winter and allowing institutions to compete beyond March.

Women’s basketball competed against St. Catherine University last weekend in two games, winning both, and will play against St. Olaf this upcoming weekend. Men’s basketball is playing four games against St. Olaf this season. They lost two close games the weekend of March 20. Senior Day was celebrated when each team played at home. 

In all games, players will continue to be fully masked because the NCAA Division III deemed basketball, water polo and football to be high-risk sports. However, in January other MIAC hockey and basketball teams like St. John’s University, Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Mary’s University, Bethel University, the College of St. Benedict’s, Hamline University, Concordia College and the University of St. Thomas were not required to be masked when on the court or in the rink. More than 50% of games between MIAC teams in winter sports competition were cancelled due to positive tests within programs and subsequent contact tracing. 

On March 25, the MIAC released a statement detailing new mask policies. It asks that schools come to a mutual decision on whether or not to wear masks for football, baseball, soccer, softball, and tennis. As for track and field, golf, and cross country, mask requirements will be determined by the school hosting. Volleyball will require masking at all practices and competitions within the MIAC due to its “indoor nature,” the statement said.

The Mac Weekly reached out to the MIAC and several Athletic Directors in the conference. 

St. John’s University Athletic Director Bob Alpers said, “I will say this, we tested almost 3,000 times since the middle of January with only 8 positive cases. Only 2 of the 8 even had mild symptoms.” 

MIAC Commissioner Dan McKane and the remaining Athletic Directors declined to comment.

Macalester athletes, on the other hand, have not had a positive test since the start of the semester. Macalester Men’s Basketball Coach Abe Woldeslassie told The Mac Weekly about the MIAC’s decision to play earlier in the winter.

“I think when the decision was made in January, the NCAA Division III tournament for men’s and women’s [basketball] was still on,” Woldeslassie said.

Woldeslassie further spoke about how he and his team approached the season differently given the circumstances and how he approached the year when all competition in modules 1 and 2 were cancelled.

“Yeah, you know, it was a year unlike any other,” Woldeslassie said. “So it was something that there’s no playbook for how to handle a season in a COVID year. And so we treated it in a lot of ways, like a developmental year.”

“You know, when there’s no pressure of games, and you’re not worried about scatter reports and travel and things like that, you can just really focus on your team,” Woldeslassie continued. “And we have seven new first years on our roster.”

“[It] was a chance for them just to really get to know our program and to develop.”

According to Macalester Director of Athletics Donnie Brooks, Macalester is now in Phase III of the reactivation of Macalester’s competitive practices on campus, after regularly consulting both the NCAA and the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) every week throughout the pandemic. 

“Many schools within the MIAC crew that chose to play had already played their season – the seasons were essentially done,” Brooks said. “We wanted to align with schools with similar philosophies and approaches towards safety.”

Some schools took similar approaches to Macalester, including Carleton College, St. Olaf and St. Catherine. However, Macalester will not play Carleton in any of its modified fall and winter seasons because Carleton is only permitting spring sports teams to participate in intercollegiate competition.

As other Saint Paul colleges were already returning to competition in Jan., Brooks and the Head Athletic Trainer Paula Natvig traveled to Saint Paul’s Division II Concordia University to observe their testing protocol. Brooks said from the experience that competition during COVID-19 was very difficult.

“I think the measured approach to return to play has given us the opportunity to compete,” Brooks said. “Ultimately I’m happy with the process that we went through and the level of questioning and discernment that we had to put ourselves through making a decision to not shut down teams.”

Before module 4, Macalester’s Leonard Center (LC) was reserved only for student athletes. Now both the Alumni Gymnasium and Riley Pool in the LC have limited reservable availability for non-athletes as of Sunday, March 21. 

All Macalester sporting events are available to watch via livestream on the Athletics All Access webpage.

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