The fall 2020 sports season for Newman University student-athletes was abruptly put on hold due to a national pandemic. But the Jets are looking to end their 2020-2021 season on a high note with a spring semester of team spirit and competition.
Athletic Director Joanna “Jo” Pryor said the athletes and coaches are excited yet prepared to remain open-minded and flexible because the pandemic is still part of this academic year’s story.
“For the most part, everyone is excited. However, there is a lot of uncertainty,” explained Pryor. “Things can change at the drop of a hat — we might find out two days before a scheduled game that there won’t be a game, so we have to be ready to change at a moment’s notice.”
Pryor added that the situation is everchanging and communication has and will continue to be the key factor in finishing this season. The Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association (MIAA) will maintain an open date calendar of sorts so if a team needs to postpone or cancel due to players testing positive for COVID-19, other teams can grab those open dates.
The strategy is intended to allow MIAA universities to schedule make-up games as they see openings occur.
Zane Ehling, associate athletic director of external operations, said travel will look the same for the most part. However, the teams will play fewer non-conference games than a typical season, making most of the trips in-conference within Kansas plus three surroundings states: Missouri, Nebraska and Oklahoma.
Men’s and women’s basketball teams have already been playing games and Women’s Head Coach Darin Spence said the season has been going smoothly so far with only one game having to be rescheduled.
“This pandemic situation has been a real challenge for us,” said Spence. “So much uncertainty … does tend to take its toll on young student-athletes and coaches. Being tested weekly and trying to secure our own safe bubble area while having to worry about all others who come in contact with us who aren’t tested has been a big challenge.
“We have had to navigate things that have never been done before and at times it has felt like we were making it up as we went along. Having said all that, our women’s basketball program has done a very good job of taking care of us.”
Spence said there is much to look forward to as they move into spring, and he and the team are ready for what’s to come.
“Growth, enthusiasm and interest are huge now as we move forward and all who touch our program have an affect on our growth and forward movement. Most importantly, I am looking forward to and enthusiastic about how Jesus Christ guides the people in our women’s basketball program and we know we play to honor God.”
Wrestling begins their season as soon as Jan. 9, which is a delay from their usual November start.
Head Wrestling Coach Ryan Smith said his guys are missing out on the first half of what is usually a two-phase season. The first phase of their typical year consists of individual matches, working on skill, getting weight under control and overall working the nerves out of the wrestlers’ systems.
Smith said, “The season has been shortened but the national tournament date hasn’t moved. We’re compressing a six-month season into just eight weeks. We lost several open tournaments in the process and are jumping right into duals.”
Smith added that the morale of the wrestlers is lower than usual, with only practices taking place up until now, but they are ready for competition. Coaches and staff are working through what is a very unusual season and are ready to get out on the mat.
“Moral is the tough piece. It was tough during the fall, we knew we weren’t competing, but now we are going into duals. Now as we get closer to the actual season, there is more to lose. It’s very challenging; it’s an added stress that we’re figuring out how to manage each and every day from both the coach and athlete level. But we’re ready.”
Men’s and women’s bowling, which is usually a fall sport, is also scheduled to start their shortened season as soon as Jan. 23.
Bowling Coach Billy Murphy said the season will be an interesting one for sure and will feel more like a sprint.
“There are going to be fewer tournaments but it won’t feel that way,” said Murphy. “We are bowling six out of eight weekends to qualify for our post-season. But I can tell you that our student-athletes are ready. It’s all they can talk about.”
He said the practices will look a little different, too, but the end-goal will be the same: “Be ready to play and to play at a high level. The team that excels this season is the one that can keep up that high level of play.”
Baseball and softball will see regular seasons after having theirs cut short in spring 2020. Andrea Gustafson, head softball coach, said she and her players are obviously ready to hit the field while understanding that flexibility must stay at the top of their minds.
She explained, “Last season was going fine, I believe it was 25 games we got in, and March 12, we were scheduled to leave the next day for a game, we found out we were postponed. We just thought we wouldn’t go anywhere for a couple of weeks. We had no idea what would actually happen.”
Gustafson plans on taking full advantage of her practices during those times when all the girls are healthy and together.
“This year we know each other better, so I think we understand the direction we are trying to take this program. You never know when you’ll have a full team. I’ve learned to go with the flow — when we do have our full team, it will be important to do the team skills work that we need.”
Other teams have been affected by trimming off a few weeks from their season. And volleyball, which also typically competes in the fall, will be playing mostly scrimmages during the spring semester.
Pryor said regular COVID testing helps identify any issues that arise. When teams are just in their practice portion of the season, random testing for 25% of the teams is done weekly. Once competition weeks begin, all team members are tested weekly before games take place.
“Now that we have made it through fall, we are that much more prepared and ready for spring,” said Pryor. “We learned a lot from our fall semester experience. We were very cautious, but it really protected us. We know a little more and we are definitely ready to move forward.”