Basketball struggles to get on track due to COVID-19

Matthew Drewry, Features Editor

This basketball season has been unlike any before it. After March cancellations due to COVID-19, the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference (NSIC) announced a modified schedule in November. In this season, Winona State University basketball teams are struggling to compete, facing frequent COVID cancellations. 

Currently, the women’s team has played four of eight scheduled contests, falling to 0-4 after a 81-79 loss against Augustana University Saturday 26th, before cancellation of Sunday’s game due to COVID. Men’s basketball beat Augustana Saturday 87-82 and lost a rematch Sunday 63-73 to a 3-2 record, playing five of eight games so far.

Both Winona State basketball teams faced University of Minnesota Duluth Jan. 2nd before a positive COVID test within the Winona program ended the series. The Warriors resumed last season’s schedule against the Duluth Bulldogs, with the men’s matchup in Duluth’s Romano Gymnasium and the women facing off in McCowan Gymnasium.

The Bulldogs handily beat both Warriors teams 306 days after their last matchup. Men’s basketball lost 59-81, while the women’s team fell 47-68. 

Winona State women’s basketball coach Scott Ballard said the team faced an old opponent with a new playstyle. 

“We’re basically running a new offense and a new defense from last year and It just takes time and reps to become consistent, Ballard said. “When you play a team the quality of Duluth, they will expose your inefficiencies or inconsistencies, [which] will be magnified against a better opponent.”

After the initial matchup, a positive test in the Winona sidelined both teams before their rematch, for the following two weeks, this meant cancelling contests against Southwest Minnesota State University and the men’s game against the University of Sioux Falls (S.D.) 

Women’s basketball faced University of Sioux Falls Jan. 16th, losing both contests 67-61 and 73-67, falling to 0-3. 

Precautions for this season included back to back games against a single opponent per week and mandatory cancellations and quarantines, following NCAA Sports Science Institute guidelines for COVID safety. The Warriors compete in McCowan Gymnasium with only players and media present. 

Second-year point guard Bill Flowers described the new environment COVID brings to the court.

“Being in silence, it’s very weird. It’s like actually playing a five on five in, like, an empty gym,” Flowers said.

Ballard said this was sometimes a coaching hindrance.

“The first time that we subbed, I had trouble locating a player that I wanted to sub in because she was in the very back row,” Ballard said. 

Athletes also face stringent COVID restrictions off the court.

Ballard said those restrictions include COVID testing three times a week in addition to testing on gameday. 

“They do this PCR test, an antigen test, a minimum of three times a week,”Ballard said.

Flowers said the whole team faces restrictions beyond cancellations of games.

“If you did not test positive, we are allowed to have the coaches setup an individual workout, but each player has to be at their own separate basket, like at least 20 feet away,” Flowers said. “If you do test [positive], you have to just sit at home, have your mask on and and be as clean as possible.

Ballard said quarantining challenges the whole team in unique ways.

“Our goal is to get better every week. Well, how difficult is it to get better every week when you have to stop and pause for two weeks and then restart again?”Ballard said. “It’s not like you pick up where you left off. You have to backtrack and review and relearn some things.” 

Ballard described the frustration players face against the invisible opponent of COVID, including the toll on their mental health. 

“The mental health and mindset of our players going through this is my biggest concern because even those who have had a positive test at sometime in the last six weeks, none of them had symptoms,” Ballard said. “Everybody feels great. They feel normal. They just have a test that says positive on it [and] it’s really difficult for athletes and competitors to handle.”

Flowers said the whole experience has brought the team together.

  “It changed my opinion on how close a group of teammates and a group of players should be,” Flowers said. 

Flowers also said this has changed his whole perspective on the season.

“We’re not guaranteed to have a season. We’re not guaranteed to even play basketball or make it to the championship or anything,” Flowers said. “But one thing is guaranteed: we’ll have one another’s backs and be together and just make  the most [of this] opportunity.”

Ballard echoed Flowers’ optimism.

It is going to make some people stronger and some people may give into it. I mean, that’s just the nature of dealing with adversity over a long period of time,” Ballard said.But we’re hoping everyone is going to stick with it and stay positive and know that this is going to change sometime. We just don’t know the timetable.