COVID-19 has Utah’s fall sports athletes and coaches playing things by ear

(Photo courtesy of John Vu | University of Utah) Head coach Rich Manning leads Utah women's soccer team as they begin fall practice.

Ballpoint pens have begun to gather dust on Rich Manning’s desk on the University of Utah campus. The Utes women’s soccer coach doesn’t have much use for them these days.

“The themes have been, like: write everything in pencil, take it one day at a time, be ready to change and do the best you can to reach out to your athletes and keep them on a positive path,” he said. “That’s really been kind of my motto.”

COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on the fall college sports season. As the dates for athletes to arrive on campus and the start of training camps approached, guidelines and protocols began to shift weekly, if not daily. Football has occupied much of the spotlight, but the changes have had just as much, if not more, impact on the athletes and coaches in other fall sports — such as women’s volleyball and men’s and women’s cross country, tennis, and soccer.

It’s for this reason Manning doesn’t feel comfortable reaching into his desk for a pen and putting his plans down in ink. After all, he has had to relay new practice dates to his players three times this summer. The latest came Aug. 11 — four days before his players were scheduled to report — when the Pac-12 Conference, in which the Utes play, canceled all sports until at least Jan. 1.

Manning’s players finally got on the field together Monday, the same day classes started. For now, they’ll practice 20 hours a week. Yet Manning said the NCAA could reduce practice time, likely to the 12 hours it approved for football teams that are not playing this fall, when it meets again in mid-September.

At this point, the coach is just hoping all of this upheaval isn’t for naught., and that the fall sports championships can be moved to the spring — a door the Pac-12 is still propping open — rather than be canceled altogether. Logistically, however, adding up to 22 more sports to the 66 the NCAA already hosts during the spring would be a Herculean task.

Even still, it wouldn’t work for all sports and all athletes, including BYU senior Matt Owens.

Owens scored for the Cougars’ cross country team when it won the national championship last fall. However, he also runs indoor track in the winter and outdoor track in the spring. He qualified for the Olympic trials in the steeplechase and was among the top three returning collegiate athletes in the event heading into this spring before COVID-19 wiped out spring sports.

He said regaining that lost season is his priority right now.

(Photo courtesy of Nate Edwards | BYU) Matt Owens competes in the NCAA cross country national championships in Terre Haute, Ind., Nov. 23, 2019.

“I, at this point, am mostly just hoping for indoor track to be a thing,” Owens said. “If they find, like, a way to logistically make cross country happen at the same time, great, I love it. But at this point, I basically have pushed past cross country and I’m getting ready to sure have some fun races this season but really gear up for track.”

Other fall athletes feel stuck in limbo as they wait for the NCAA or their individual conferences to make a decision on the fate of their sport.

Utah State golfer Andy Hess also had the championship of his sport canceled last spring. With the fall season off the books and next spring still in limbo, he realizes he could be practicing for a full year without a competitive payout. It’s a situation he finds especially frustrating since golf, a noncontact sport played outdoors with few spectators, is probably the NCAA’s most social-distancing-friendly sport.

To keep himself competitively sharp, Hess has entered several public tournaments this summer. In May, he matched the course record at the Logan Golf & Country Club, the Aggies’ home course. Earlier this month he won the men’s club championship at the Logan River Golf Course, where he works. And next week shoot for the Utah State Amateur Championship title in Park City. The tournaments break up the monotony of practice, he said, but the fields aren’t as deep as he sees when he plays for USU.

“I’ve been playing really well. It’s kind of unfortunate because I wish I was leading up to playing well in the fall season, but it is what it is,” he said. “I have to try to make the most of it and play in as many tournaments as I can. I’ve just been practicing a lot and trying to work on some things. That’s about all I can do at this point.”

Hess and Owens are both seniors on track to graduate by spring. The NCAA has already guaranteed them an extra season of eligibility if they want it, but neither one has made up his mind. For both, it would mean adding a minor and staving off the next chapter of their lives for at least another year.

Last week, the NCAA extended that same offer of an additional year of eligibility to fall sports athletes, regardless of how much they get to play this spring. Manning said it was a game-changer for his soccer players, some of whom were questioning whether it was worth playing a partial season if it meant losing an entire season of eligibility.

“The kids were just like jumping up and down, like the pressure’s off,” he said.

Dani Drews, a standout senior outside hitter for the Utah volleyball team, didn’t need much time to make her decision. A day after the announcement, she was already making plans to add a minor to her degree in parks, recreation and tourism so she could spend an extra season with a Utah team that lost to eventual national champion Stanford in the second round of the NCAA Tournament last year.

“It’s just, I looked at it from the perspective of you only can play college sports for so long. And for me it would be really bothersome if I just got my diploma this fall and decided not to come back,” Drews, a Brighton High product, said. “I think I always would wonder how far our team could have gone if I would have played my senior year. If we could have reached even higher goals. And I think I would just really regret missing out on it.”

(Photo courtesy of Steve C. Wilson | University of Utah) Dani Drews plays in a Utah volleyball match against BYU, Sept. 19, 2019 in Salt Lake City.

The college sports scene Drews returns to a year from now could look vastly different from what she’s experienced, though. Athletic departments nationwide, including at Utah and Utah State, will either have to take out loans or make sweeping cuts to shore up the millions of dollars they expect to lose due to the postponement of the revenue-generating football and, potentially, basketball seasons. The impending loss of revenue has already prompted Stanford to ax 11 sports from its roster of 36, though its athletic department had been losing money for years.

“Now we have to deal with budget issues with football not playing right away. I think that’s another thing that will affect our department quite a bit,” Manning said. “It’s going to be hard.”

Manning said he has been told Utah will make its budget decisions within the next couple of weeks. For now, it’s one more uncertainty looming over his program and his players in an already unpredictable year. It’s one more reason to write his plans in pencil.