CHAMPAIGN — Plenty remains in limbo when it comes to the resumption of sports amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of the major details, really.
Junior college athletic departments at least have a timeline to work from after the NJCAA announced Monday that nearly all fall sports would be moved to the spring and winter sports wouldn’t begin until mid-January. That plan was voted upon nationally on Tuesday and approved by presidents of schools in the Mid-West Athletic Conference, which includes Parkland College.
“There’s a lot to figure out, but at least it gives us some hope to have some sports even if everything from the fall is pushed to the spring where it would be safer,” Parkland athletic director Brendan McHale said. “The tagline is that’s where things stand for now. The NJCAA has done a good job of making decisions based on when it can work for all their member schools. They were not going to do something where the majority of them could not compete.
“I really think this is a good decision at this time. We’ll analyze it as things get closer to the competition season. If it’s safe, we’ll proceed. If it’s not, the NJCAA will have to make a hard decision again.”
The NJCAA plan will shift traditional fall sports at Parkland — volleyball and men’s and women’s soccer — to either a second semester or spring start. Volleyball can begin practice Jan. 11 and competition on Jan. 29, while the Cobras’ soccer teams can practice starting March 15 and play their first matches April 2.
Winter sports will also be affected by the new NJCAA plan. Men’s and women’s basketball can, like volleyball, begin practice on Jan. 11 and then play their first games Jan. 22. Spring sports will continue on as scheduled with new limits on games (baseball) or dates played (softball).
Parkland men’s basketball coach Anthony Figueroa wasn’t surprised by the NJCAA’s recommendation to postpone all sports in the first academic semester.
“I think it’s better than not starting at all,” Figueroa said. “It’s always been an option that was out there that’s been discussed among different levels. I’m actually kind of relieved we have a little more direction on how we can proceed.
“I have not let it get to the point of, ‘Hey we’re not playing at all.’ We don’t know. It still is up in the air with COVID-19 on how January will happen or if it will happen. We’re going to control the controllables and emphasize to our student-athletes to keep safe and stay healthy. We’re not in a normal time, and everyone has to understand that.”
That there’s a plan in place for how sports can come back at the NJCAA level is enough right now for Figueroa.
“It’s huge,” the former Centennial standout said. “You can answer some questions now from students and parents. You can start to formulate a plan on how you’re going to attack the first semester. It provides a little more relief that you won’t have as much pressure on our student-athletes in the fall as they’re going back to class and trying to navigate the pandemic.”
Parkland athletes won’t be totally inactive this fall, though. Each team will be allowed 60 consecutive days for practice or scrimmages between Aug. 15 and Nov. 15. The number of allowable scrimmages vary from sport to sport — anywhere between from four for soccer to 15 for baseball — but they at least present the opportunity for some competitive preparation before the altered seasons officially start.
A timeline for the resumption of NJCAA sports is just the start of getting teams back on the court. McHale said the next step for Parkland is figuring out when it will starts its 60-day practice clock. To do so, plans have to be in place to make sure student-athletes, coaches and staff remain healthy. Symptom and temperature checks will become the norm, and Parkland will coordinate with the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District and with its athletic training staff from Carle Foundation Hospital.
“There’s challenges there because it’s new for everybody,” McHale said. “That’s not exclusive to Parkland College. … We want to do this in a safe and effective way and be consistent about it.”
With men’s and women’s basketball and volleyball all beginning at roughly the same time, their entire seasons will overlap. Space and time at Dodds Athletic Complex will be at a premium. That the three sports always overlap at the end of a normal volleyball season and beginning of basketball season at least means there’s a tentative blueprint to follow with staggered practice times.
“They’ve learned how to coexist,” McHale said. “They all understand it’s a shared facility. They definitely collaborate well and work together on that. Everybody wants to be in the gym, but they all understand there’s multiple teams.”
Figueroa said he intends on turning to Parkland’s baseball and softball coaches when it comes to fall practices. Those two teams always have a fall practice schedule before playing in the spring. Figueroa is curious how they structure that time and how he now might do so.
“We have some stuff that we think is beneficial to us with this type of schedule,” Figueroa said. “The baseball and softball coaches have done this for years. I’m leaning on them for some advice and picking their brains on how to navigate the schedule in the fall.”
The second semester schedule will take some work, too. One change is teams won’t have to schedule as many games with limitations set for each individual sport, with the rescheduled fall sports and delayed winter sports affected the most. Men’s and women’s soccer will play a maximum of 14 matches. Volleyball is down to 21 competition dates. Men’s and women’s basketball will play just 22 games.
“We’ve got to get our conference schedule solidified,” Figueroa said. “Then we can start to drive down the road of nonconference opponents if that’s even possible. … Everybody’s going to have different protocols. Iowa schools, they may not be able to leave Iowa. Some schools may elect to play their conference opponents three times each just to fill their complete schedule. Just a lot of question marks, but I’m glad we have to ask those questions.”