A Year Into Pandemic, Local Athletic Departments Still Navigating Challenges

Dr. Ed Scott still remembers the surreal feeling of March 12, 2020. The Morgan State athletic director was in Norfolk, Va., for the MEAC women’s basketball tournament, and his Bears had a 2 p.m. quarterfinal matchup against Delaware State. But the coronavirus pandemic was forcing cancellations across the sporting world, and MEAC presidents and athletic directors were deliberating their own decision.

The vote came in just after tipoff to cancel the remainder of the tournament; hours later, the NCAA canceled its basketball championships altogether.

“That decision was made just as the game was tipping, which was really weird in the sense that I’m sitting on information, watching my team play, [knowing] I have to deliver tough information to them afterward. And so it was unsettling in that sense,” Scott said about 11 months after the game took place.

The past year in college sports has been defined by uncertainty and chaos, as well as by frustration and disappointment. Spring 2020 seasons were shut down quickly in the face of the mushrooming COVID-19 pandemic. Athletic directors immediately turned to grappling with plans for their fall 2020 seasons.

But even as pro leagues were returning to action last summer, colleges faced the additional challenge of fitting athletics into a larger academic community. At most institutions, fall 2020 sports seasons were pushed back to the spring of 2021. And while the 2020-21 basketball season is currently operating on a somewhat normal schedule, even those schedules have been riddled with pauses and postponements.

Back in March, that Morgan State-Delaware State game ended up being played, and Morgan won a 64-63 thriller. Senior Chelsea Mitchell converted a go-ahead 3-point play in the final minute and the Bears survived late.

As Scott watched in support of his program, he knew he would have to break the news to the players and coaches after the game. His words would end the careers of seniors and dash the Bears’ hopes of winning their first-ever conference title.

But there was an important consolation as well.

“The feeling that our team had at the end of that experience was a positive because they won the game,” Scott said. “And that’s the one thing I do take away for our seniors, is that at least they can walk away from the last game they played at Morgan with a W, and that leaves a good taste in their mouth.”

Athletic directors throughout the Baltimore region and around the country found themselves in similar predicaments that day. Things moved fast — the sports world went from business as usual to a complete standstill in essentially 24 hours.

Loyola athletic director Donna Woodruff recalled breaking the news to the Greyhounds’ women’s lacrosse team, which was 5-0 and ranked No. 3 in the country at the time, that the Patriot League was canceling the season.

“There certainly are things that are worse than that, that could happen, but at that moment it was devastating to them,” Woodruff said, “and to have to deliver that news, that will stick with me for a long time.”

UMBC athletic director Brian Barrio pointed out that the challenges have continued.

“It was very, very frustrating over the summer trying to plan for scenarios that were changing daily,” Barrio said. “And frankly, that hasn’t really stopped. We’re still seeing cancellations and changes. And what we’ve learned in the pandemic is that during this time, you just can’t make solid plans more than a couple of weeks out because things are changing so fast.”

College football, a sport where games are sometimes scheduled more than a decade in advance, looked a lot different from one conference to the next in 2020. Each of the 10 FBS conferences ultimately played in the fall, although some initially announced they were canceling their seasons.

Navy played 10 of 11 scheduled games.

Maryland played five of a scheduled nine.

At the FCS level, though, the majority of teams and conferences will play a modified spring season. That spring football season won’t include Towson, which announced Oct. 29 it would not play an intercollegiate schedule, or Morgan State.

The Bears had four games scheduled against two MEAC opponents — home-and-homes against Howard and Delaware State — but announced Feb. 11 that it would not compete this spring. Still, Morgan is planning to practice this spring to prepare for the fall.

“We have a plan, but we work in intercollegiate athletics, right? That’s why you have a halftime, that’s why you have timeouts — you adjust your plan all the time,” Scott said before news came down. “And so what I tried to relay to [my department] was, we already know how to do this because we do it every day in our jobs. What we have to do is take that transferable experience from game planning for an opponent to game planning against this coronavirus.”

For local schools without a football program, men’s and women’s basketball were the first to return. Those seasons have encountered varying degrees of turbulence — at UMBC, for instance, the men’s team was 13-4 with just two contests canceled or postponed as of Feb. 17, while the women’s program discontinued its season Jan. 29 after last playing Jan. 4 (the team went 2-6).

It can be easy to wonder why everyone is going through the trouble to play and travel to games with little to gain in a monetary sense. But the schools know how much having sports means to those in the programs and across the university as a whole.

“We’re not an FBS football school where we’re concerned about television revenue and all that kind of stuff,” Barrio said. “What we’re concerned about is, we want to give these students this part of their life back so that they can have a better chance to get through this thing with their emotional well-being intact. So we really looked at it [through] that lens.”

As it stands right now, nearly all sports at local Division I mid-majors will have at least some semblance of a 2020-21 season. The spring will be a “Rubik’s Cube,” as Barrio puts it — a change of plans in one sport will probably affect several others. Schools only have so much time, facility space and staff to make everything work. It’ll be a season of sacrifices and taking it one day at a time.

“If you can’t be flexible, you will seriously be unhappy for the next four or five months,” Woodruff said.

The pandemic has forced everyone, in all walks of life, to be creative. Athletic departments were forced to try things they never would have thought of previously. UMBC and Loyola held virtual golf tournaments in which participants played courses around the country rather than the same course at the same time. Coaches in all sports recruited and signed players they had never met in person.

At Morgan State, the pandemic presented an opportunity to launch the Morgan Bear Club, an official arm for athletic donations, in November. Scott said the club already has more than 190 members and has raised more than $100,000 toward university athletics.

Money is a concern for all these schools right now. The impact of the pandemic was felt across the country; several institutions even slashed certain athletic programs. That hasn’t happened locally, though, and the departments across Maryland remain optimistic for the future. It’s still unclear when things will return to “normal,” but administrators believe they’ve weathered the storm as well as possible.

“I think one of the things for me that’s been uplifting is learning about the kind of character we have in our department, both in the staff and the student-athletes, and also learning just how supportive our campus is of athletics because we’ve needed that,” Barrio said. “That’s what’s got me getting up every morning and still feeling excited to do my job, is that I know we’ve got a lot of people who are giving it everything they have and a lot of people on campus who are behind us.”

Photo Credits: Courtesy of Morgan State Athletics; Larry French/Loyola Athletic Communications; Courtesy of UMBC Athletics

Issue 267: February/March 2021

Originally published Feb. 17, 2021

Thomas Kendziora

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