Meredith Schamun, the new volleyball coach at the University of Pennsylvania, stepped out of her SUV Monday morning at 8:41 a.m., ready to move into her new 33rd Street office. She didn’t have keys yet so Schamun had to walk to another building to meet a Penn staffer who could get her in the door. All that was prearranged, went off without a hitch.
“I think I’m on the third floor,” Schamun said after she pulled in.
While Schamun couldn’t get in there officially until 9 a.m., you couldn’t blame her for being a bit early.
In reality, she’s over five months late.
Schamun, a former Villanova assistant coach, had been hired for the Quakers job in March, just before COVID-19 shut Penn’s campus down. She’s met with a few players, but never the whole team, except by Zoom. Same for new Penn’s women’s soccer coach Casey Brown, hired at the same time, just in time for the pandemic.
“We’ve talked a lot,” Schamun said of her fellow new coach, since she can compare experiences with Brown, who met a small group of Penn players for the first time last week, outside, masks on.
“A few of the sophomores had already moved in,” said Brown, who had been the head coach at Holy Cross. “They said, ‘Hey, we’re outside the office.’ So you’re meeting them, no hugs, no high fives, it’s raining. But I was really pumped by that. These kids do exist! We were standing out there for close to an hour.”
At least the coaches knew what they were getting into. By her recollection of the timeline, Schamun interviewed at Penn in March the day after the Ivy League basketball tournament was canceled. The spring season was up in the air. Those were the discussions as she shuttled from office to office interviewing. A crazy time.
Schamun was expecting it would take a little time to hear back after the interview, but the next day she got a call – “listen, our school is going to shut down, there’s going to be a hiring freeze. We want to offer you the job, if you want to take it.”
She took it. She didn’t have to move, already living out in Wayne. (Although she plans to move closer.) Brown had been offered the job the week before, but her background check took a little longer, she said, so she was announced as the new soccer coach a few days after Schamun took over the volleyball program.
Neither one could hire an assistant for five months, although Brown just got one in the door, while Schamun said that’s about to happen for her team.
In the meantime, COVID protocols keep changing.
“The goalposts keep moving,” Brown said, talking about the whole landscape.
They’ve known since early July they weren’t having a fall season, but only days ago did they find out another big shift. Penn changed course and wasn’t going to have any students on campus or any live teaching. For now at least, no on-campus activities at all.
Last week was the first time Brown got into her office. Coaches have to work in slots. Two three-hour slots a week, only so many allowed in at once. So while Brown got in from 1-4 p.m., her new assistant, Rose Hull, just in from Nebraska, had to take a 9-noon shift. Since they can’t be in there together, they met outside for the first time.
“We grabbed coffee outside, we were talking about all the nooks and crannies of this,” Brown said. “How we had to build cohorts of ten for training in the fall. In the midst of this, I looked at my university email. ‘Oh, nobody is actually returning.’ ”
Many of the upperclassmen were already moving in off-campus. Even some of the freshmen are looking at doing something similar, even though learning will be virtual.
“It’s hard to advise anyone right now,” Brown said. “But I understand all these kids want to take that step for college – you can put it in quotes, ‘college,’ right?”
There was no live NCAA recruiting this summer for any sport, another pandemic wrinkle. Given the obstacles, the NCAA did allow something new, current student-athletes could talk to recruits, since there have been none of the usual campus visits.
“We were reading a book together at one point, as we kind of geared up for the fall,” Schamun said, “Chop Wood, Carry Water, by Josh Medcalf. Little life lessons.”
It’s one thing to keep up virtually on recruits you’ve already seen live, but identifying talent via watching online is a real trick, any sport.
“It’s really been nuts,” Brown said. “First and foremost, there’s obviously certain things you look into for your team. You have positional needs, and not being to train the current team affects the recruiting. You might decide somebody is better suited for a different position, which could mean you need a few more backs. It’s hard to make those assessments.”
Without a key or even an ID yet, Schamun propped a door open with a little mail shelf by the door so she could bring a computer and books up to her new office.
“It’s awesome,” Schamun said when she came back outside after seeing her new digs for the first time. “It’s plenty big. The assistants will have their own space.”
As it happens, a few veterans who lived nearby off-campus checked in, so Schamun met up with them on Shoemaker Green, a commons on-campus. They asked about plans for the fall and when the assistant would start and told her about how they were settling back in.
There were easier answers to give before last week’s campus shutdown edict.