College basketball: FGCU men, women both return to practice following COVID-19 pause
The FGCU men’s and women’s basketball teams were prepared and days away from starting their ASUN conference schedule.
The men were 5-2 and coming off a 73-60 win over Georgia Southern on Dec. 22. The women were 7-2, had won six straight, and were receiving votes in the USA Today Coaches Poll.
But positive COVID-19 tests — in each program — a day apart caused everything to come to a halt. The men stopped on Dec. 30, and the women did so on Dec. 31.
Everything returned to somewhat normal — at least as far as getting to practice goes — for the men Monday, and the women Tuesday. Originally the teams were set to each return a day later.
“Getting back on the court, it was tough,” said senior guard Jalen Warren, a preseason all-conference pick. “A lot of guys are pretty fatigued, but we’re really, really excited.”
“(Tuesday) was the first day that we could actually have a real practice,” women’s coach Karl Smesko said. “Since we’ve been off for so long, we kind of had a shorter practice than maybe usual. It went pretty well.”
Smesko and men’s coach Michael Fly, along with the athletic department, had talked in depth about how to handle the Christmas break as far as letting players go home.
“It was a really hard decision,” Fly said. “Karl and I both talked to a lot of friends in the business about what they were doing.”
The consensus was that mentally, allowing players to go home and see their families was important.
“We’ve got rules, curfews, a ton of protocols,” Fly said. “To tell them we’re playing Dec. 22, we’re not playing again until Jan. 1, and you’re not allowed to go see your family, we thought we were going to create a completely new set of problems.”
“We knew that allowing the student athletes to go home for Christmas was a big risk,” Smesko said. “You’re kind of balancing a mental health aspect of kids being away from their families for a long time, with the COVID risk of traveling.
“We were both well aware that the risk was when they came back, maybe not everybody is still going to remain COVID-free, and we both experienced the pause.”
The men are scheduled to start their ASUN schedule with home games against Bellarmine, the conference’s newest member, on Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m. at Alico Arena. The women are scheduled to play at Bellarmine in Louisville on Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m.
That doesn’t mean both programs don’t have to worry about a pause again. Some programs have had more than one pause this season, and it’s only mid-January. Duke’s women just shut down for the entire season after only four games.
“It’s going to be really difficult,” Smesko said. “With the rise in cases in Florida, a new strain that’s even more contagious that’s in the state, we have a campus full of students who are coming back who have been away and traveling, it’s really going to take a lot of sacrifice from our student-athletes for us to be able to play. And then we have to have opponents that are able to play as well.”
FGCU personnel will be tested twice this week, before those games against Bellarmine.
“I thought our guys did a phenomenal job of protocol and being careful,” Fly said.
Yet there were both programs without a game to play or a practice to have, while getting ready for what already was going to be a challenging ASUN conference season with the schedule including games on back-to-back days.
Zoom video calls and group texts became the best way to communicate. Some players were allowed to practice or work out individually outside. Some players got assigned to watch ASUN teams play online. Smesko sent his team scouting reports on opponents.
“We were pretty disappointed. but Coach, he kind of prepared for us at the beginning of the season,” Warren said. “He told us when we all came back to campus that it’s not a matter of if we don’t get it. We had things set up to get us back on the court as quick as possible. We stayed motivated throughout quarantine.
“We have a lot of really, really good chemistry this year. We take a lot of pride in being there for your brother.”
“It was definitely a surprise,” women’s senior forward Alyssa Blair said of the positive test. “It was definitely hard. We finally we felt like we were really making progress in nonconference. We were excited. … To get that news was tough to get.”
FGCU’s positive tests were “Tier 1” in the program, which applies to players, the coaching staff, athletic trainers, managers and top sports information officials. When contact tracing — meaning anyone who came in contact with the person(s) who tested positive — and quarantines then happen, that can easily sideline a basketball team, which only has 13 to 15 players depending on walk-ons, etc.
Those types of guidelines have resulted in dozens of COVID-19-related pauses and postponements around the country.
The Eagles were forced to postpone games with North Alabama (Jan. 1-2 for the men; Jan. 2-3 for the women) and Liberty (Jan. 8-9 for the men; Jan. 9-10 for the women). The postponement of the Jan. 10 game against Liberty was a blow to the women because the game was scheduled to be shown on ESPNU, a rarity for a perennial top mid-major to be on national television.
The ASUN adopted back-to-back games at the same site for its conference schedule as a way to adapt. So far that’s created some challenges. UNF, North Alabama, and Jacksonville have had one or both of their programs halted due to COVID-19. Jacksonville’s women’s team hasn’t played since Dec. 14.
But the proximity of the bulk of the schools has allowed for some flexibility. For example, when the FGCU women had to pause, the North Alabama women instead played Kennesaw State that same weekend.
“You can’t count any games later in the season,” Smesko said. “If you have two teams that are cleared to play, you work it out, and you try to get games in. I think that’s just a smart approach. You have your schedule, but you understand that there may be some flexibility in that schedule.”
Smesko and Fly had made it a point heading into the season that everyone should feel thankful to be playing. That was just hammered home more with this pause.
“It was definitely a reality check,” Blair said. “Both teams could take all of the precautions necessary and it still could turn out not being that great.
“Now if we did our jobs off the court, to make to on the court, we have to play our best. Earning that time on the court means so much more this year than any other year.”
“At this point, it’s really a privilege,” Warren said.
Greg Hardwig is a sports reporter for the Naples Daily News and The News-Press. Follow him on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter: @NDN_Ghardwig, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Support local journalism with this special subscription offer at https://cm.naplesnews.com/specialoffer/
This content was originally published here.