Although he played a full season during the coronavirus pandemic, it hasn’t made it any easier for coaches at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) to navigate. North Carolina Central head coach LeVelle Moton has first-hand experience of how COVID-19 spikes can affect the season.
Last season, the Eagles took about a 60-day hiatus due to the pandemic, including a six-week hiatus. They played 14 games. Fifteen games this season, the Eagles were again forced into a four-week hiatus and postponed their first three conference games, the longest hiatus for a Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference men’s basketball team this season. .
The MEAC, Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC), Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA), and Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SIAC) men’s and women’s basketball teams canceled or postponed approximately 70 games between July 15 December and February 5 due to COVID-19 issues in one or both programs. The CIAA and SIAC canceled their 2020-21 seasons due to the pandemic. There have been fewer than 10 total cancellations in the past 30 days.
“We canceled last year. This time last year was heartbreaking because we had already canceled in the fall, then we canceled our basketball tournament and then it continued,” said CIAA Commissioner Jacqie McWilliams. “But we made a commitment, our board made a commitment that we would all do what we had to do. [for] our institutions and our campuses within our championships to prepare for this year.
For mot, the simple fact of going to the MEAC tournament will be an accomplishment.
“I don’t think there isn’t a program in the country that has been affected by COVID like we have since it started,” Moton said of the program’s issues during the pandemic. . “Most teams, when affected, cancel their season. We didn’t cancel our last year, we carried on and it affected us again and again. And again this year, so you know it’s is difficult.
Moton said his approach to returning players is extremely sensitive due to his memories of watching former basketball player Hank Gathers and his childhood friend Victor Harris collapse on the court. Workouts consisted of three-way weaves and conditioning to help returning players gradually get back into shape.
“Everyone thinks just because this kid called COVID the 10and then on the 15the, Everything will be alright. No, this stuff affects everyone’s body differently. It’s really difficult after 30 days out,” said Moton. “As for the guys who had tested positive, we gradually brought them back into the lineup. Strength and conditioning are the most critical aspects of maintenance during the season. We couldn’t even lift a weight. I had to do my part to understand and be able to handle their bodies right now.
Coach Kenneth Blakeney and the Howard Bison, who called off last season after five games, have faced their share of pandemic-related issues this season. Like the Eagles, the Bison have the same issues with player availability. Top priorities for Blakeney and his staff have been player safety and maintaining their mental health. During the break, the team relied on Zoom calls during the quarantine period.
“I think maybe I misunderstood the mental challenge that our student-athletes face. Fortunately, we work with a sports psychologist who is very close to our team. We have those kinds of outlets,” Blakeney said. “I think our guys can have an amazing relationship with each other. We had Zoom [calls] and with our Zooms, we talk and stay connected. I would take opportunities to reach out and try to touch base with everyone as much as possible. I think it was a lot of our guys who felt like they had something to look forward to.
Blakeney and the Bisons find their groove during conference play. The Bisons canceled three non-conference games against Yale, Hampton and Penn, but returned in time for their first conference game against Norfolk State on Jan. 15. The Bison (11-10, 5-3 MEAC) currently have one game under . 500 for the season, but are eyeing their first winning season in Blakeney’s three-year tenure as head coach.
“We’ve played three conference games so far. We still have 10 or 12 games to play, all of that will happen next month. So it’s going to happen fast,” Blakeney said. “We tend to have a winning season, if we’re lucky and keep doing the things we’re doing. Going in that direction, if we can continue to stay healthy and adhere to the things we need to do to stay grounded in our basketball fundamentals, it can happen.
“We’re excited for the rest of our season, and I definitely feel like we’re at a stage where we’re conditioning ourselves. Mentally, we’re back to where we were before our COVID break.
While COVID-19 has ravaged some programs, teams such as SWAC Southern Men’s Basketball are enjoying a healthy season uninterrupted by illness, which had made head coach Sean Woods very grateful.
” We were lucky [that] we weren’t affected by that. Our whole team is 100% vaccinated, got boosters and all that so the rules work in our favor because you just have to quarantine for five days and don’t test unless you have symptoms,” Woods said. “We’ve been great at taking care of the bodies, taking vitamins and staying away from the public as much as possible.
“[We’re] just really focusing on the basketball, because we feel like we have a special team and we don’t want anything to interrupt what we’re doing. So the guys are actually convinced not to hang around and do the right thing,” Woods said. “So we’re still keeping our fingers crossed because there’s still a season to go, but it’s been a total team effort trying to stay clear and stay healthy in regards to this virus.”
Without a break, Southern is ranked No. 1 in SWAC with a 9-3 conference record. Another team reaping the rewards of a strong season is Virginia Union, which currently sits atop the North Division standings with a 10-3 conference record for the CIAA ahead of the February 21-26 CIAA Tournament. in Baltimore. For Virginia Union coach Jay Butler, playing during the pandemic is new after CIAA play was canceled last season. In his first season going through the pandemic, he took inspiration from professional sports teams as he tried to form a team bubble.
With the decrease in COVID-19 cases due to the waning effect of the omicron variant, schools and conferences are hoping to complete their regular seasons and move on to their tournaments.
“We have been blessed. We try to preach to guys at all times, be aware of where you’re going, try to stick together and keep social distance. We try to keep ourselves almost in a bubble, without actually being in a bubble,” Butler said. “The guys are pretty much healthy after being out for a year. All 15 guys have contributed to the team this year and helped us win games.
As teams regain their health and continue to play in the conference, conference administrators are cautiously monitoring COVID-19 trends ahead of the SWAC and MEAC tournaments taking place March 9-12 in Birmingham, Alabama, and in Norfolk, Virginia, respectively. The men’s and women’s SIAC tournaments will take place February 28 through March 5 in Rock Hill, South Carolina.
“I think the teams are doing their best, but sometimes you can do your best, and it will surprise you anyway,” said Commissioner MEAC, Sonja Stills. “The alternative is so contagious and it affected some of our teams earlier in the season. I think with the protocols we have in place throughout the conference, we hope [teams] will remain healthy throughout the season.
“We pray intensely and remain firmly convinced that the protocols we have put in place will help us run a healthy and safe MEAC tournament, not only for our student-athletes, but for the fans as well.”
The Eagles have won three of the last four championships MEAC men’s tournament. North Carolina Central completed its first two conference games with wins over Delaware and Maryland Eastern Shore 22 and 24 January. The Eagles are currently ranked second in the MEAC conference with 5-2. Despite the rehabilitation of soft tissue injuries due to the long time without playing basketball, the team hopes to finish strong and bounce back from the drive lost time before the tournament.
“It’s a repetition-based game, so you have to have valuable practice time to do it. It’s tough now because we don’t really have practice time,” Moton said.[Execution] That’s what I want to see us improve on because the most disciplined team that performs the best in March is the winning team.