By Fernando Alba
Some normalcy came back to SUNY Plattsburgh’s campus with the return of in-person practices for fall sports teams Sept. 14.
While holding practices may be familiar for the returning teams, the sight of them resemble nothing like what they’re used to.
Under phase one of its Cardinal Athletics and Recreational Sports Reopening Plan, SUNY Plattsburgh is permitting in-person practices for men’s and women’s soccer, tennis, volleyball and cross country but with many stipulations.
Intercollegiate teams are practicing with no more than 10 people at a time, leaving coaches to hold practices multiple times a day to account for each pod. Everyone is also encouraged to wear masks and social distance when possible. Locker rooms are closed, and equipment cannot be shared between players. Before athletes on campus could start in-person practices, all of them were tested for COVID-19. The return to play was approved after all of those tests came back negative and review of the guidelines that would be in place.
Assistant Director of Athletics for Communications Brian Savard said what exactly would happen in the case an athlete tests positive for COVID-19 isn’t set right now, but they would speak with the Student Health and Counseling Center for guidance.
“We would certainly communicate with the health center.” Savard said. “We would go from there and go off their recommendation. Clearly, anybody who tests positive would follow the campus’ isolation and quarantine protocols.”
One of the reasons behind the 10-person pods is to keep contact to a minimum and reduce the spread of infection if there is a student with the virus, Savard said.
Phase one also included the reopening of the Fitness Center and the return of a number of “low risk” club sports like frisbee, marksmanship, disc golf, golf and fishing.
While teams are practicing, they’re not practicing to compete against other teams. They can’t even compete against each other in intra-team scrimmages under phase one.
Practices among the teams have focused mainly on individual work. But despite the lack of competition, men’s soccer head coach Chris Taylor said it’s still important to offer the student-athlete experience this semester in some capacity for not just students’ physical health but their mental health as well.
“As an athlete, you’re used to having a lot of structure. You’re used to being really busy. You’re used to having practice. You’re used to having classes and other responsibilities,” he said.
“If you take away all that structure, that can be a real-life changing kind of thing for these athletes.”
A lot of SUNY Plattsburgh athletes have been playing sports since a young age. Having it taken away from them because of COVID-19 last March shook a lot of them, Taylor said.
“Without that structure, they really struggled to kind of find value in their day. I think sports allows them to function in different ways,” he said. “I think it’s really important we do offer an athletic experience because for a lot of them, that’s why they came to Plattsburgh.”
Junior defender Jimmy Alexander has been playing sports for as long as he can remember. The possibility that he wasn’t going to play soccer this semester was unfamiliar to him. Whether there was going to be a season or not, he spent his summer preparing for one anyway.
“It was tough to think about. For so many years I’ve been playing in the fall. Over the summer, I just spent preparing for [the possibility of a season,]” he said
Being a student-athlete has given Alexander discipline, he said, and a busy schedule to keep himself occupied. He appreciates the in-person practices even if they’ve been limited because at least it gives him the structure he’s used to.
Taylor and volleyball head coach Matt Lein both have seen similar sentiments among other athletes. They said they haven’t had trouble motivating their players so far in the early stages.
“[The response from athletes] has been great,” Lein said. “They’ve really taken it upon themselves to be self-motivating, to keep themselves active. They were really happy [the first week of practices] when we were back together having structured practices.”
Not all teams were able to adjust smoothly to the new restrictions.Volleyball started its in-person practices on the Field House’s outdoor track on the field in the middle of the track.
“It was definitely interesting,” Lein said about the first three days of practice the team held outside.
“It’s hard because our sport is precise. It’s hard when all of a sudden you have the wind taking the ball everywhere,” he said. “It makes it difficult for the passer to read a serve, and it makes it difficult for our setters to put it in the right spot and for our attackers to be successful.”
After its first week of practice outside, the volleyball team was given the OK to move back into Memorial Hall’s gym for practice.
Volleyball practices have revolved around ball control and partner work with a focus on communication and individual skills, Lein said. With two pods of athletes to work with, Lein has been limiting the amount of players on either side of the net by three. He also has two sets of balls for each pod and disinfects the balls after each practice.
The men’s soccer team has been split into three pods in accordance with the new protocols. Taylor said having the team divided during practices has been the toughest adjustment so far.
“We believe in the protocols for sure, but the best thing about being a part of our team is the togetherness, the hanging out in the locker rooms together, coming out to training all together and joking around and having a bit of banter and all that,” Taylor said. “Now that we’re in small groups of 10, it’s still there, but it’s on a smaller scale.”
Being apart also makes it more difficult to integrate the 12 newcomers on the team, Taylor said. But in some ways, Taylor said, it isn’t too bad to have less pressure on the freshmen now that the expectation of them having to be good right off the bat is gone.
Practices have focused on more technical and physical training as well as getting the team tuned to play at a fast pace with good technique. Another challenge for Taylor is getting his players, who are at varying fitness levels, up to speed.
“Once guys found out that the season wasn’t maybe going ahead, I think some toned down their training a little bit, which is understandable,” Taylor said. “And so we’ve got a range of different fitness levels within the team, so we’re just trying to get everyone to their best.”
But without the motivation of upcoming competition and even though the players have been engaged in the early going, Taylor said it’ll be a focus for the coaching staff to keep practices meaningful throughout the semester.
“As coaches, we’ve tried to be as creative as possible to make sure that the practices are engaging and stimulating, that they feel they’re getting better,” he said.
But practices aren’t a guarantee. So for the time being, players are focusing on what they can control — how strongly the team follows the campus’ health and safety protocols, which Alexander said athletes on campus have taken seriously.
“Nobody wants to blow the chance of having a season,” Alexander said.
Not many people knew what to expect from the fall semester. SUNY Plattsburgh’s coaches and its athletic department were no different. The biggest challenge for many of them was adjusting with all the changes as the pandemic developed over the summer.
“Everything was so uncertain,” Taylor said. “We went through a range of emotions. Some weeks, we were certain we were going to have a season, that we were going to play. Other weeks we were like, ‘No, there’s no way we’ll even be in school.’”
Taylor spent his summer communicating with his players even when he didn’t always have all the information available to him.
“Sometimes we didn’t have a lot to talk about because we just didn’t know [what was happening,] but we were just trying to make sure we were transparent with the players and that they knew everything we knew.”
Once they knew there wasn’t going to be inter-conference play, the focus was on preparing alternatives so that student-athletes could still get an experience they expected, even in a scenario where there wouldn’t be any practices.
“It was a really odd summer. There was a lot of overthinking of all the situations,” Taylor said. “Hopefully we don’t have another summer like that.”
The athletic department had to keep up to date constantly with news over the summer Savard said the SUNYAC athletic directors met regularly to evaluate and reevaluate their possibilities. In June, it even had a plan in place that accounted for travel, overnight stays and play with other teams.
“At the time, we felt pretty good with [the plan], that it was going to be a conservative move,” Savard said. “Then we saw the cases nationwide weren’t getting any better, so really, there was no way for us to hold a fall semester full of competition.”
Phase two of SUNY Plattsburgh’s reopening plan for athletics would include activities in larger groups that would continue to adhere with New York State guidelines. It hasn’t been yet approved by the campus, Savard said. Winter sports also haven’t been approved. The NCAA said the earliest practices for those sports could start would be Oct. 1, but ultimately, the campus would have to give those teams the all-clear — if it decides to at all.