Back in March, Alija Pittenger thought the pandemic would “be a couple of months and it would be over.”
On July 13, as COVID-19 moved into its fifth month as a part of our lives in the United States, Pittenger, the head volleyball coach at Loyola, got the news that it would continue to deeply impact her profession and the Greyhound student-athletes she champions.
The Patriot League Council of Presidents decided to cancel competition in the league’s fall sports, impacting Loyola, one of the 10 member institutions. The Patriot League will not participate in traditional conference fall sports such as cross country, field hockey, football, soccer and volleyball because of the coronavirus pandemic. Loyola, of course, doesn’t play football, but the school’s fall athletes are affected regardless.
For volleyball, which like football usually has spring practices, those spring opportunities were also lost as colleges campuses shut down late last March. When students come back to campus — currently scheduled for Aug. 31 at Loyola — it will be the first time for any of Loyola’s teams to have huddled together since then.
“I’m hoping that we can pick up a little bit where we left off in the spring,” Pittenger said. “That we can do volleyball training, work on conditioning and strength. For the team, just being together again will be a huge bonus.”
The Ivy League made a similar decision to shutter all fall sports July 8, the first Division I college conference to announce such a move. Several non-Division I colleges have also opted not to play this fall, while other leagues around the country are pushing back a final decision as to weigh their options. Those options usually involve football and that important revenue stream.
Patriot League presidents opted not to wait, which if nothing else, brought clarity to the Greyhounds.
“Unfortunately it matches up with what we’ve seen across the country the past few weeks which is as things opened up, the increase in cases, a little bit of the lack of ability to get results back as quickly as we would like with testing,” Loyola athletic director Donna Woodruff said of the decision. “The reality was just that this was not the safest and best option for our student-athletes this fall.”
And not just for student-athletes, Woodruff added. Student-athletes “leave campus, come back to campus for competitions and mingling in additional contact points was just not in our best interests.”
Included in the Patriot League’s announcement July 13 was acknowledgement that a decision on winter and spring sports will be made at a later date and that all sports could participate in practices, conditioning and strength training “provided health and safety conditions support such activities.”
Loyola offers 17 sports overall. The school’s fall sports include soccer (men’s and women’s), cross country (men’s and women’s) and volleyball. Additionally, traditional spring sports such as men’s and women’s golf, tennis and rowing, which have competitions in the fall as well, will not be permitted to compete until the spring in the Patriot League. The Greyhounds compete in all those sports, save for women’s golf.
League members Army and Navy were exempted from the fall cancellation because of “their unique environments and their missions within higher education.” The Council left the academies’ participation to the discretion of the respective superintendents.
The Patriot League had started laying out a framework to play this fall, working on a plan that had roots last March when basketball season and then spring sports first shut down nationwide. The league had not truncated fall schedules but was eying safer ways to compete.
Non-conference games wouldn’t have begun until Sept. 4. Conference play would have started at the end of September and wrapped up before Thanksgiving. Teams within the conference would not have been allowed to fly to competition. Overnight travel for regular-season games would have been virtually eliminated.
“At this point we won’t be starting later in the fall,” Woodruff reiterated. “The Patriot League has left open the option that we may move the fall competitions to later in the year, possibly the spring. I think right now we’re all in a holding pattern to see what happens across the country. Unfortunately, I think there will be more conferences that will be unable to compete this fall.”
Pittenger is rooting for her team to take the court this spring, even if it is a hardship on her and her program in some regards. The fifth-year Loyola coach has just one assistant, and the spring is prime recruiting time when the youth club circuit cranks up and coaches get a chance to assess talent. Playing a varsity schedule while recruiting will be tough in that circumstance, but worth it if her team, including four seniors, can play again, she said.
“Competing is what we all do this for,” Pittenger said. “I think everyone lives for game day, and just that opportunity to compete and put on a jersey again. I think we all have a different appreciation for putting on that jersey and competing for your school against other schools. It’s a payoff for all your hard work.”
Likewise, Woodruff easily identified the hardest part of making the announcement of the fall cancellation to her staff and student-athletes Monday morning.
“It was telling the student-athletes and the coaches that something they work so hard for and commit so much to is not going to happen in the short term,” Woodruff said. “It was the same in the spring.”
Pittenger said her team has adapted and learned “to go with the flow” as the college sports terrain has moved underneath them.
“Honestly our team is definitely a group of planners. They want an itinerary. They want to know where we’re going to go, what we’re going to be doing, what things are going to look like,” Pittenger said. “Since this has happened, whatever gets thrown at them they’ve done a great job of pivoting quickly. ‘So, this is what this is going to look like. How are we going to make the most of it?’”
Woodruff has seen a progression in the thinking about fall sports playing in the spring.
“Three months ago, when people were talking about what the possibilities might be if we had to make any changes to the fall, there was a lot of ‘No way could we push everything to the spring,’” Woodruff said. “Then once you get here, gosh, we want to do whatever we can to make sure everybody has competition.”
Playing in the spring is still fraught with issues in terms of access to playing and practice facilities, training staff availability along with other necessary athletic support staff, particularly at smaller schools, with many already pushed to the brink in these areas.
A private school without football, Loyola has some advantages in the pandemic environment and Woodruff doesn’t envision the kind of budget and cuts to sports team offerings already being seen within other college athletic programs around the country.
“Obviously we’re paying very close attention and being very fiscally responsible,” Woodruff said. “The truth of the matter is right now if you’re not a football institution where such a large percentage of your revenue comes from football you are slightly less impacted but still greatly impacted from sponsorship dollars, NCAA revenue, ticket revenue, et cetera. We’re all impacted but admittedly, not as greatly as some of the larger institutions.”
As for Pittenger’s volleyball team, they had a Zoom call July 13 and the coach said her seniors were already asking questions about playing in the spring, about grad school and eligibility if the situation again changes.
“As soon as they get the information, they’re trying to make the best out of it,” Pittenger said, “which is amazing.”
Photo Credits: Craig Chase and Larry French/Loyola Athletic Communications