Maneuvering through a pandemic to play college basketball was never going to be easy. It also wasn’t going to be a process solely relied on by head coaches and players.
The average fan only sees when players and coaches test positive or negative, but the process is much deeper and longer. It’s a day-to-day battle that involves several lines of communications to ensure player safety and lots of careful movement.
Each City Six school and other NCAA Division I programs have Tier 1, Tier 2, and Tier 3 personnel members. Tier 1 is described as the most exposed group. Those in Tier 1 are usually coaches, players, medical staff, and trainers.
Tier 1 members at schools like Villanova, Drexel, Temple, and La Salle are working behind the scenes but have as big an impact on this season as anyone. Especially in a city like Philadelphia, where because of restrictions players didn’t have the opportunities to do summer workouts like some other cities.
“Philadelphia is probably one of the more strict protocol places everywhere,” Temple head coach Aaron McKie said.
Temple’s Jessica Reo adjusting on the fly
Jessica Reo, Temple’s executive senior associate athletics director, can’t rest too often. Every time she thinks she has the COVID-19 protocols and procedures figured out, something new is unveiled.
That’s the half of the battle that no one sees. Reo is communicating with Temple’s athletic trainers and coaches about the City of Philadelphia guidelines, state guidelines as well the guidelines put forth by the NCAA, the American Athletic Conference, and other conferences Temple teams face in nonconference road games.
“The more you look at it, the more it stays in your brain,” Reo said. “It’s been a lot of reading and a lot of exchange of information.”
Reo meets weekly with other the senior women administrators and she speaks with team physicians and athletic trainers daily. She has other conversations with student health officials and the head of the university’s emergency management depending on the state of the team regarding COVID-19. She then relays all this information to McKie.
“She’s been great with her communication,” McKie said. “Just dealing with the entire school, the coaches and the various sports programs. That’s always important because she’s keeping us updated with what’s going on.”
Temple is playing its first game on Saturday against NJIT. That’ll be the first look at the game day operation, meaning even more adjustments are coming.
Drexel’s Mike Westerfer prioritizing mental health
Whenever Drexel head coach Zach Spiker gets a chance, he always applauds senior assistant athletics director for sports medicine, Mike Westerfer.
Westerfer is one of the people behind Drexel’s operation. Like the other schools, he points out that the Philadelphia guidelines are particularly tough. Players and Tier 1 personnel undergo nasal swab testing every morning.
“A lot of stuff has to go in the right direction just to play one game,” Westerfer said. “Then you repeat that.”
Westerfer communicates directly with players and often checks on how they’re handling things mentally. Changes as small as not being able to be with teammates for the pregame meal could take a toll. On game days, players get packaged foods and then go back to their rooms or designated eating areas. In past seasons, they’d eat as a team.
The players are essentially only around Tier 1 personnel members. Even Drexel’s women’s and men’s basketball teams are in two different dorms.
“Their social circles are pretty much on their phones now,” Westerfer said. “You’re in an isolation situation and it weighs heavy on them. It’s not the same as what they’re used to.”
A critical part of Drexel’s operation is trying to stay ahead even though restrictions can change at any minute. Players will get three days to go home for the holidays next week. Once they return, the players will be separated for a couple of days and then until they get three negative tests.
“That’s a mental worry for them,” Westerfer said. “Every day you’re coming in to get tested, you don’t want to see a positive and feel like you shut your team down.”
La Salle’s Pete Gash breaks down long days for Explorers
La Salle’s day starts bright and early at about 7 a.m. when the athletic trainers arrive to administer COVID-19 tests. Director of player development and analytics Pete Gash is one of the essential Tier 1members who makes sure the players are properly informed.
Players arrive around 7:30 a.m. in groups of four and await for their test results, which are ready approximately 20 minutes later. Once cleared, players can take care of their academic work on line before returning later for practice.
“It is a very strenuous process because they’re doing actually COVID tests with Q-tips going inside your nostrils,” Gash said. “It’s an uncomfortable thing to do.”
Gash, the athletic trainers, and coach Ashley Howard are all heavily involved in the day-to-day process. Much of the concern about college basketball centered around how college athletes would be disciplined enough to essentially isolate themselves throughout the season. La Salle’s campus is essentially made up of just the student-athletes and essential personnel members. That makes it easier to navigate, but sometimes even that isn’t enough.
“The thing that we talked to our guys a lot about is, do everything you possibly can to mitigate the risk of getting COVID-19, and you still might get it,” Gash said. “It’s just our guys understanding that as much discipline as they can have is as much freedom as they can have to try to be able to play basketball.”
Villanova travel plans different than any other year
Dwayne Anderson serves as director of basketball operations at Villanova, but Jay Wright joked with him that his position should be called the COVID director expert.
The Wildcats have played more games than any school in the City Six, which gives them a unique experience on the traveling changes impacted by COVID. Anderson helps set up traveling plans as far as booking hotels, what the team is wearing, and keeping the day’s itinerary up to date.
“Certain places have different protocols,” Anderson said. “We’re just trying to reach out as much as possible in case the guys have any questions.”
Villanova has played games in Connecticut, Texas and Washington D.C., as well as Pennsylvania. Anderson noted the changes in each state with each hotel, ranging from the number of players at a table to the food setup. The servers are behind plexiglass and make no contact with Tier 1 personnel. Wright emphasizes to Anderson that if a place or opposing team doesn’t make Villanova feel safe, they won’t go or play that game.
“The hotels have done an amazing job of trying to keep us safe,” Anderson said. “It’s a lot thrown at you, but it seems like everyone takes it very serious. If it’s not safe, we’re not doing it.”