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College basketball programs grapple with playing amid coronavirus pandemic: ‘We’ve got to be realistic’

As the coach of the Navy men’s basketball program, Ed DeChellis is thrilled there is a season this winter after the 2019-20 campaign was halted early by the coronavirus pandemic. He looks forward daily to working and interacting with his players and assistant coaches.

DeChellis — a 62-year-old husband, father of three daughters and grandfather of two — survived a stroke in early October and also learned that he is diabetic. So the risk of exposure in the midst of COVID-19 outbreaks throughout the country has dogged him relentlessly.

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“It’s always on my mind,” he said. “We get tested quite often, but it’s not good for me and it’s not good for anybody to contract this thing. So yeah, I do have concerns. And I think the cases might be higher now than they were in March when we canceled the NCAA tournament. So it wasn’t healthy to do it then, but it is healthy to do it now? It’s just mixed signals.”

DeChellis’ worries illustrate the problem facing college basketball teams in Maryland.

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On the one hand, players and coaches have welcomed the opportunity to play and compete for that annual objective of qualifying for the NCAA Division I tournament, providing some semblance of normalcy at a time when there is hardly anything typical in the face of the pandemic.

On the other hand, five programs have already been forced to temporarily halt their seasons because of coronavirus issues, and players and coaches have questioned whether they can complete abbreviated schedules and participate in their respective conference tournaments as the number of cases and deaths rise almost daily.

Maryland is now one of 47 states to have higher than a 5% positivity rate, the rate the World Health Organization recommends jurisdictions get under before relaxing restrictions on businesses and social gatherings. Maryland has not reported a daily positivity rate under 5% since Nov. 7. The United States is approaching 300,000 coronavirus deaths since the start of this year.

“I do think we’ve done it the right way and the safe way,” UMBC men’s basketball coach Ryan Odom said. “Does that mean that we’re not going to pause at some point? We probably will at some point. We don’t want to, but the more you travel, the more you come into contact with other people, and it’s a bad time out there right now. So we’ve got to be realistic.”

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Support for halting college basketball throughout the nation has strengthened recently as more high-profile coaches have raised doubts about continuing the season. Last Monday, Pittsburgh’s Jeff Capel suggested taking a break over the holidays. And two days after Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski said a reassessment should be done, the Blue Devils canceled three nonconference games remaining on their schedule to avoid potential infection and allow the players time to spend the holidays with their families.

Several schools across the country have already suspended their seasons because of COVID-19 cases, and the same has happened in this state. On Dec. 2, the Coppin State women’s program temporarily stopped all activities, and the Towson men’s team followed suit three days later. On Monday, both Navy and the Mount St. Mary’s women’s programs announced a pause of their respective campaigns.

And on Thursday afternoon, the Mount St. Mary’s men’s team halted its season. The stoppage occurred just two days after the Mountaineers opened Northeast Conference play with a 75-57 victory over Saint Francis.

“We had arguably our best practice of the year yesterday before we found out the news,” Mount St. Mary’s coach Dan Engelstad said. “So we’re going to try to keep the momentum going, and I really like our team. I’m trying to stay positive and make sure that our guys are taken care of and that we put a plan in place that will allow us to get back together as soon as we’re safely able to do so.”

Mount St. Mary's coach Dan Engelstad directs his team during a game against Maryland on Nov. 28 in College Park.
Mount St. Mary's coach Dan Engelstad directs his team during a game against Maryland on Nov. 28 in College Park. (Karl Merton Ferron/Annapolis Capital)

The insidious and unpredictable nature of COVID-19 is the opponent no player, coach or team can prepare for. Every school has adopted preventive measures to try to reduce any potential exposure.

Maryland men’s coach Mark Turgeon said team meetings are limited to 15 minutes, and participants are distanced by at least 6 feet. Masks are required, even for him when he is working out.

“Hope it helps,” he said. “You just try to do everything you can to prevent the spread and catching of it. It’s really what we do when we leave the building. I think our guys have been making good choices.”

Navy has banned pregame meals and prohibited use of the locker room and film rooms, opting instead for meetings in a practice gym with seats for players and coaches spaced 6 feet apart. Despite the precautions, DeChellis said an infected player tested negative on the previous Friday and then positive last Monday.

“There is no plan,” he said. “It is hourly, it is daily. You might have a plan, but you better have Plan B, C and D ready as well because this thing can change hourly.”

The Mount St. Mary’s women’s team is in the midst of its second quarantine with the first occurring in the fall after two players tested positive. On Monday, the team was on a bus about 20 minutes away from arriving in College Park for a highly anticipated game against No. 14 Maryland on Tuesday night when coach Maria Marchesano received a phone call from the university’s head athletic trainer informing her of two more cases.

“All the kids are off campus now and we’re kind of bubbled up in our little mountain area, so I think we kind of felt like we were good,” she said. “And then having already left for our next game and then finding out on the bus, it was a little bit of a shock. The kids are handling it OK, I would say. It’s definitely a gut punch. Even though you knew it was a possibility, it’s still a gut punch when you get that news.”

The self-imposed isolation requires all players to remain in their dorm rooms and suites at all times. Visitors are not permitted, and meals prepared by the schools are delivered to their rooms.

The sudden lack of interaction can be depressing, said Mountaineers junior forward Taylor Addison.

“We’re basically by ourselves the whole time, and I think that’s the main toll,” said the Columbia resident and Howard graduate, who has two suitemates in senior center Rebecca Lee (Old Mill) and redshirt senior shooting guard Kendall Bresee. “We’ve been trying hard to stay away from people and try not to get COVID, and then for it to happen on the bus, it’s almost like a shock. So I feel like the mental toll is worse.”

Mount St. Mary's coach Maria Marchesano talks with guards Michaela Harrison (10) and Jessica Tomasetti (14) during a game against James Madison in Harrisonburg, Va., on Nov. 25, 2020.
Mount St. Mary's coach Maria Marchesano talks with guards Michaela Harrison (10) and Jessica Tomasetti (14) during a game against James Madison in Harrisonburg, Va., on Nov. 25, 2020. (Daniel Lin/AP)

The players’ emotional health is just as important to their coaches as their physical state. That’s why Towson coach Pat Skerry wishes there was some way to organize a schedule that would permit players who continue to test negative to work out with a coach or trainer (socially distanced, of course) in an empty gym during specific times.

He related a conversation with shooting guard Nicolas Timberlake during which the redshirt sophomore bemoaned days off because practices were the only things to which he looked forward.

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“That really resonated with me because in a normal year, they’ve got a lot of other stuff going on so that I think guys really appreciate that off day,” Skerry said. “Now they’re like, ‘Man, what am I going to do?’ They can’t have visitors, classes are online, nothing is really open. So what do guys love to do? They love to compete and work out. And I feel like that, too. Selfishly, I want to be in the gym. We always kid around in the office that being with the guys is the best two hours of the day.”

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Programs are also still determining what to do about the holidays. Towson is keeping its men’s and women’s players on campus. Meanwhile, per Northeast Conference mandate, members of both Mount St. Mary’s teams will be sent home as long as they continue to test negative. Navy is undecided about what to do.

If there is one silver lining, it involves how easily the players have accepted measures such as social distancing and wearing masks. During pregame introductions for Monday’s game between George Washington and UMBC, junior shooting guard R.J. Eytle-Rock walked onto the court with a face mask under his chin, and Odom, the coach, said several players have similarly forgotten to remove their masks during substitutions off the bench.

“They were constantly moving and pulling on our ears and things like that,” said junior shooting guard L.J. Owens, an Annapolis resident and Severn School graduate. “But we’ve gotten used to them.”

Skerry, the Towson coach, pointed out that there is “a light at the end of the tunnel” in the form of a vaccine, but predicted that it would not be available to players and coaches before the NCAA tournament wraps up in April.

Whether the current college basketball season will continue is likely up to the individual conferences. The Ivy League canceled all winter sports, and other conferences could end things prematurely as they did last March if the coronavirus worsens.

Although the college basketball season opened Nov. 25, more than 25 teams have yet to play their first game. Loyola Maryland’s teams aren’t schedule to start competition until January.

Players such as Towson sophomore forward Charles Thompson say they understand the caution, but view basketball as a much-needed outlet.

“It’s really the only thing that feels normal to me at this point,” he said. “Basketball is what we all look toward to escape from life, to escape from the pandemic. … It’s a great outlet to escape from reality right now.”

That sentiment is why someone such as DeChellis, who has plenty of reasons to wish for a longer halt, is reluctant to join the growing chorus advocating for an across-the-board suspension of college basketball.

“I’m not there yet because I know that our kids really want to play,” he said. “They put a lot of time and energy and effort. But I think things change, and if things change, then your thought process changes. I listen to the CDC guidelines, and they say don’t travel. Well, we’ve got college basketball teams jumping on planes and flying, we’ve got college basketball teams jumping on buses and traveling to games. I’m not ready to pull the plug on it yet, but I think it’s very concerning for the safety of our players and our staff.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Daniel Oyefusi contributed to this article.

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