Athletes return to competition

After ten months, competition is back. 

On Jan. 2, women’s basketball tipped off the first Augsutana gameplay since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“It was surreal, but it was also just really gratifying to finally reach that point,” Athletic Director Josh Morton said.

Both the NCAA and the NSIC updated their regulations for winter gameplay, which allowed athletes to formally compete on a regularly scheduled basis. 

“It took so much to get there: a lot of work and a lot of planning,” Morton said. 

Winter athletics are on a three step plan for integration, according to Morton.

“No. 1: The priority is competition,” Morton said. “We want to put on competition safely.”

The second step was to allow family spectators, then the third step integrated general fans. Because wrestling is held in the Elmen Center, only family members are allowed to attend those events at this point.

Now that the men’s and women’s basketball teams are playing at the Sanford Pentagon, all types of spectators are allowed.

“It’s always fun to put on an entertaining game for fans and to have their energy in the gym,” senior basketball forward Tyler Riemersma said.

Senior forward Tyler Riemersma holds a basketball in the Elmen Center. Both the men’s and women’s team now play at the Sanford Pentagon.

The Pentagon is set up with pod seating, seat covers and plexiglass between spectators and players.

“We feel really comfortable having fans out at the Pentagon,” Morton said. 

The NCAA plan for Resocialization of Collegiate Sport requires all student athletes to self-monitor their symptoms before practice and gameplay. While most of the regulations vary per sport, they recommend masking whenever possible unless doing so would “present a physical challenge to the student-athlete during activities when there is contact to the head or face, strenuous exercise is involved or the mask is likely to get wet.”

Senior distance swimmer Taylor Beagle said the swim team wears its masks in the locker room and at all other times, except for when entering the pool. In accordance with the NCAA, Augie follows local and CDC guidelines first within gameplay.

“We get tested three times a week, wear masks as much as possible and limit who we are around,” Riemersma said. 

According to Morton, the Sports Science Institute for NCAA released guidelines that continue to be updated for testing protocols and game operations. The NSIC released a winter sports operation plan that deals with conference only guidelines.

“We’re at the mercy of the virus,” Morton said. “We’ve been flexible and will continue to be.”

Basketball now plays the same team back-to-back instead of different teams to help limit exposure. Riemersma said this also helps with scouting.

“It’s awesome being able to compete against other teams after practicing for so long,” Riemersma said.

Augustana recommends athletes get the COVID-19 vaccine when it becomes available. Both Riemersma and Beagle plan to do so once they have the opportunity. 

“I’m optimistic about our handling of the virus getting better,” Morton said. “I really feel good about our spring sports.”

Morton said some athletes who work in healthcare have already received the vaccine. The rest of the athletes will become eligible at the same time as students. 

“I feel like we’ve done a good job so far managing everything,” Morton said. “It’s just great to be competing.”

While COVID-19 cases caused cancellations for two basketball games so far, none of them were on Augie’s part. Morton said he does know this can change, but that he’s pleased the athletes have not endured too many cancellations.

“Having games canceled and postponed also makes us very grateful for every opportunity to play,” Riemersma said. 

The NCAA will uphold its decision to allow students another year of eligibility if one of their seasons was affected by COVID-19. 

“It’s the right thing to do by the NCAA, and for our institution,” Morton said. “We’d love to have them back.”

This is true for winter and spring sports as well, meaning athletes could stay at Augustana for an extra year and continue playing. Morton said some students have already made the decision to take on another year. 

Morton said he hopes Augustana can continue playing throughout the spring with success. 

“We’re obviously thinking about the fall of ‘21 as well,” Morton said. “We’d love to be in a place where we’re back to normal.”

Riemersma said the men’s basketball team is confident in their abilities for the rest of the season.

“We know what we are capable of and are excited for the last five games of the regular season,” Riemersma said. 

As swim picks up for Beagle, she said coming out of a pandemic pause has been tough as the team had to recover quickly.

“We have a couple areas where girls have had to step up and swim things they normally would not,” Beagle said. “But everyone has taken it like a champ and really showed up for the rest of the team.” 

All winter and spring sports teams are currently publishing their schedules for competition this year. The plan for each is to continue with regular competitive play and tournaments.

“As long as we worry about what we can control, I’m optimistic,” Morton said. “When it comes to being an athlete, it’s what they train for.”

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