Just getting student-athletes on the field this fall was a chore for the Colorado State University Pueblo administration.
The hurdles presented by the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, including changing health and safety protocols, left athletics officials feeling less than fully equipped to deal with the rules and regulations needed to be in place.
That no longer is an issue. At least, that’s the hope.
With the aid of CSU Pueblo Chief Strategic Officer Donna Souder-Hodge, who is in charge of COVID-19 response and planning, the university and the athletic department are entering the 2021 portion of the athletic season with a plan in place. Whether it will work is dependent on those involved.
“The key to this whole thing is we have to have 100 percent buy-in and commitment from the staff and student-athletes,” CSU Pueblo Director of Athletics Paul Plinske said. “There is no other option. Otherwise, no one will be able to participate.”
Souder-Hodge describes the process as, “there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, but the tunnel is long.”
Plinske was admittedly disappointed with how the fall went for the athletic department. Since last March, only seven live sporting events were contested as the coronavirus took its toll on practicing, scheduling and playing.
“The fall was really a disappointment from many different levels,” Plinske said. “We didn’t have a great plan for the fall and as things got worse (with the coronavirus), things got more difficult to manage.”
Typically, the athletic department would have hosted 70 events from March until now. With a new plan in place and the introduction of vaccines, Plinske is hoping the winter and spring seasons will be different.
“The No. 1 goal continues to develop safe environments for our student-athletes,” Plinske said. “There are still a lot of unknowns. … We want to give our student-athletes every opportunity to train and compete. We have a large group of 700 athletes to take care of.”
Here’s what the plan entails:
- The university is using Spartan Medical as a resource, a company that has dealt with military assistance, the Indianapolis 500 and the NCAA, so it is familiar with sports.
- Spartan Medical is contracted to test anyone who is on campus and can also do contact tracing. It will work closely with university and public health officials to determine quarantining and will help determine when those who test positive can return to participation.
- All student-athletes will be monitored and won’t be able to practice without a negative test.
- Practices will be held in small groups to help contain the spread of the virus.
- Participants are required to wear masks and remain socially distanced.
Souder-Hodge said there are many changes in the works.
“We learned a lot of lessons with our student-athletes with those seven competitions we’ve held in the past 10 months,” she said. “It’s taught us more than we can expect.
“Ultimately, what we learned in basketball is to cohort those students and make it clear to them to separate and make smart choices as well as do regular testing.”
Souder-Hodge admitted that men’s and women’s basketball protocols have provided a model to follow.
“Those two teams have given us a model the rest of the teams will be able to follow and that will impact how we do things,” she said. “Cohorting students’ testing is something we’ll be able to do in the spring and really think will allow us to continue to compete and practice.”
The experience has enabled the athletic department to move forward into the winter and spring.
“We want every sport to have the opportunity to compete by helping them gear up,” she said. “We know we’ll be able to test them weekly and the coaches need to work hard to bring their full team together and follow that strict protocol.”
CSU Pueblo junior men’s basketball player David Simental said weekly testing has become routine.
“At first every week it was kind of like ‘we have to go do this,’ ” Simental said. “Now, it’s a part of it. It’s pretty much no big deal now, it’s part of basketball.
“We understand it’s part of the protocol. If that’s what they say we have to do to play, we’ll do it. If we have to go to Colorado Springs to test, we’ll do it. We just want to play.”
Fall popped CSUP athletics’ bubble
Plinske explained why it was so difficult in the fall to get athletes on the field.
“Our biggest problem in fall is that we allowed outsiders to come into our inner bubble,” Plinske said. “We have to minimize outsiders. We have to keep our inner bubble really, really tight in order to maintain negative tests.
“No. 2, our student-athletes have to minimize social activities. That’s going to be hard to do for the next six months because I don’t think a vaccine will be available (for our athletes) until the summer.”
Plinske is optimistic that if all the rules, regulations and protocols are followed, the winter and spring sports seasons can be a success.
“I believe we can be successful in all of our sports,” he said. “All of our sports are planning to compete this spring with the exception of football. Everyone else will have competition.”
According to NCAA guidelines, athletes are tested once a week and Plinske said the university often exceeds those standards.
Athletes are tested on their availability through a website portal where they can manage their own profile and get testing results.
“Student-athletes have proof of testing sent to their phone,” Plinske said. “Green they have access to the facilities, red they can’t. If they have no symptoms and test negative, they have access to practice.”
Plinske added that whenever teams travel, bus drivers are tested and must be negative, and players and coaches are socially distanced and must wear masks. In addition, only two athletes stay in a hotel room, preferably with housemates. Separate vehicles are provided for sports medicine personnel.
“It’s very similar to what the NFL, Major League Baseball and the NBA is doing,” Plinske said. “That is protecting your bubble, testing regularly and eliminating social interaction.”
Souder-Hodge related this comment from one of CSU Pueblo’s coaches in defining what the university is up against and the stance they’ve taken: “One of our coaches made this comment: ‘We’re used to a battle, know how to fight. This is another competition, something else to overcome and win. We’re thinking of an entire community and not one person. We have that Pack mentality and have come up with solutions where we can learn from each other and improve.’ ”
Spartan Medical Inc. Point of Contact: Eric Jania, Director of COVID-19 Testing Solutions at 201-230-1410 or email@example.com