Headed back where they belong: TSU officials, coaches guiding athletes’ return to practice
Tarleton State University’s athletics head coaches and administrators did not mince words when asked what resuming practices and workouts in July has meant.
It's both a relief and a partial return to normal even as the coronavirus pandemic continues. More importantly, it has teams encouraged about the prospect of having competitions take place during the Spring 2021 semester.
"Getting back into that area of competition, I think it gives the coaches a sense of normalcy and I think it gives the kids something to look forward to," said Assistant Athletic Director for Student-Athlete Development and Strategic Initiatives Chris Reisman. "Mentally, that's a huge advantage right now.
"After the cancellation of the spring season and having to go into isolation in the summer for so long, just coming back to campus, opening back up, and then having safety measures in place where our athletes can take advantage of working out in different facilities, I think is a big win for us right now."
Increased health and safety guidelines at Tarleton set in response to the coronavirus pandemic have made a return to action and feelings of optimism possible.
Reisman, the Tarleton sports medicine team and other administrators listened to recommendations from the NCAA Sport Science Institute, Texas A&M University System and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to compose a document outlining specific policies for practices and workouts and sanitation plans.
High-risk sports test between 25-50 percent of their athletes every two weeks, whereas lower-medium risk sports test between 25-50 percent of their athletes every three-or-four weeks. Recommendations from the NCAA suggest that when competition resumes, teams will be tested weekly and at least 72 hours before a contest.
Anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 is asked to go into isolation. If a student-athlete has a positive test, their roommates will go into quarantine.
Student-athletes and coaches must have their temperature checked and complete a self-assessment of their symptoms before a workout or practice can take place. This guideline also applies to athletic trainers.
A universal masking policy is in place within all practices. It requires players and coaches to wear a face covering any time physical distancing is unable to be met or if there is a competitive segment.
Additionally, the athletic department recently purchased a COVID-19 testing device that will provide results within an hour and is working with sports medicine to develop surveillance testing.
The administration also addressed sport-specific needs of each team when outlining health and safety measures. For example, the softball team has utilized both dugouts to maintain adequate social distancing. Volleyballs and basketballs, nets and all other shared equipment inside Wisdom Gym are sanitized before and after every practice. Hand sanitizer is administered during all water breaks.
"We have to learn, and we have to continue to be transparent with our fanbase," Reisman said. "The main goal is to go back into this the safest way possible. I think biggest thing we need to focus on is the chance to compete again, and whether it's 50 percent fans or 75 percent fans, it's better than no fans or no competition."
Though concerns surrounding the coronavirus pandemic have put the Texans' Division I debut on hold, coaches have put the practice time to good use.
Head coaches Todd Whitten (football), Billy Gillispie (men's basketball), Misty Wilson (women's basketball) Mark Cumpian (softball) and Mary Schindler (volleyball) broke down how they have addressed the pandemic with their teams and focused on specific areas of improvement.
Todd Whitten was straightforward with his words when workouts resumed in late July; take care of each other as a team.
Players have been instructed to steer clear of spaces and events that leave them susceptible to becoming a carrier of COVID-19. The coaching staff also advised the team to wear face coverings in public spaces.
The heightened safety measures in turn enabled everyone to resume team lifts inside the Texan weight room five days per week in late July. Through Aug. 29, Whitten held two weekly practices at Memorial Stadium and is now waiting for further guidance from the NCAA before setting a future practice schedule.
"Our student-athletes have done a fantastic job of making good decisions, wearing masks, and all of those things," Whitten said.
Whitten, the winningest head coach in the history of Tarleton football, also credited Rod Cole, who serves as the assistant athletic director for athletic performance, for allowing team activities to resume. Cole sets the performance systems for each position group, designs weight workouts and monitor players' training progress.
"He and his staff did a complete overhaul of the training regiments within our strength and conditioning program," Whitten said. "He found a way to keep us working out and stretching in a socially-distant and safe manner, so he deserves a lot of credit as well."
Thirteen years of head coaching experience provided Billy Gillispie with proper perspective on how to address a uniquely challenging situation with his new team.
"Life is 10 percent what happens to us and 90 percent how we choose to handle it," Gillispie said, "and the guys have handled it well."
A global pandemic and questions surrounding an official start date for the 2020-2021 season have not dampened the veteran coach's excitement for his first season in Stephenville. With a roster featuring three returners, practices and team lifts have allowed Gillispie necessary teaching time to prepare the Texans for their first season at the Division I level.
Gillispie, who underwent a successful kidney transplant in 2018, wears latex gloves and a face covering throughout practices.
"I've been extremely proud of how the players have tried to respect the situation that we have had thrust upon us," he said. "They have taken every precaution that they have been asked to take, whether it be on the court, in the classroom, or out in public since they returned to campus on July 6. This must continue and will continue as we go, so that we will have the opportunity to play.
"We are preparing to play and make an impression right out of the box, so get ready for some exciting and fast-paced action. People are going to love watching these players. Let's go!"
Players have been intentional about protecting their pod and preparing for their first season in the WAC.
There has yet to be a positive COVID-19 test within the program. As soon as players were permitted to play 5-on-5 on Aug. 24, a mid-morning pickup game between classes was scheduled inside Wisdom Gym. With the scoreboard and shot clock operating, players policed themselves, called out plays and handled substitutions.
Misty Wilson and her staff set three imperatives for the fall to prepare for the Texans' inaugural season in the WAC; build team chemistry, develop relationships and address mental health.
The last of those is most important to the seventh-year head coach and Texan Hall of Famer. Wilson feels that the pandemic has placed student-athlete mental health at an all-time low.
"I've told them on several occasions, 'Listen, I'm struggling," she said. "It is really hard to plan socially-distanced practices where you can't have any interactions and you're in a mask. It's hard not knowing. They seem to be more and more comfortable reaching out for help."
The team has bi-weekly meetings with a counselor and utilizes other mental health services provided by the university and athletic department. Their discussions typically center on the stresses of being a college athlete and how to rely on one another for support.
Wilson scheduled voluntary workouts on campus through July 20, but allowed players to take previously scheduled vacations.
On the hardwood, Wilson knows there is work to be done. The Texans lost three regular starters from the 2019-2020 season and currently have six new faces on the roster.
The team has watched film of future opponents and Division I games together to grow more comfortable together and help transition to a higher level of competition.
"You've got to think that we're a little bit behind — making the transition to D-I," Wilson said. "We've watched film and evaluated and watched Division I basketball on TV, but it's different when you're in that moment. We feel like we're taking on that underdog mentality. We don't know what it is that we're preparing for, but we're behind. It doesn't matter that our season is going to get pushed off."
A return to workouts and team conditioning was a welcome sign after the pandemic wiped away a promising spring season. The Texans had an overall record of 19-4 and were positioned to earn their fourth consecutive NCAA Tournament berth prior to the cancellation of spring sports.
No one within the program appeared apprehensive about returning to the diamond.
"I think they're excited to be back on a field, because it's been about five months since we've touched a field," Mark Cumpian said. "I wouldn't say we're scared to get back on the field. I think we're just a little (more) aware of what's going on in the world with as many cases as there are."
Cumpian is more comfortable coaching players in smaller groups early on. Coaches and trainers currently are working with players in groups of six — three in the hitting tunnel, three on the field — to space everyone out.
Specific situations will call for face coverings to be worn once full practices begin next week.
"Say, if there's a runner at first, then the first baseman is close by and we'll probably put a mask on just to be safe," Cumpian said.
Cumpian is wearing his mask pretty much wherever he goes, to set an example for his players. He's instructed everyone to keep their distance on campus and in public places, such as grocery stores, to preserve the team's bubble.
"We're trying to keep our distance from the normal student body," he said. "Not that we don't like them or anything, but just to play it safe. For us to be successful, we've got to keep it safe and stay away from other people.”
Normally, Mary Schindler is preparing for her team's first matches of the season at this time. With the WAC electing to postpone fall competitions, the veteran head coach views the delay as an opportunity.
Coaches typically work more closely with their projected starting six during fall practices. Now, Schindler and her three assistants have time and space to develop all 16 Texans on the roster.
Schindler also believes there may have been an increase in injuries had teams rushed to return to competition.
"Having this period of growth, we're going to eliminate some of that," she said. "They're going to get back in shape with coach Cole in the weight room and in the gym. We're going to see positive things happen. Is it ideal? No. Do I want to do it ever again? No. But I think for this year and the climate we've built, right now, a bad practice is better than no practice."
The Texans were competitive at the Division II level, having amassed a 317-171 since Schindler took over in 2004. The program expects to place highly in the WAC following the athletic department's required four-year transition as set by the NCAA.
Schindler and her staff have sold the transition to Division I and the WAC to create buy-in during this time. Players have become an extension of their coach's voice to ensure the health and safety of the program.
"The other day I said, 'Hey listen, I know everyone's still going to the dining hall," Schindler said. "Everyone needs to get it to go and take it home to eat. There's too many people in there now.' I've really appreciated that it's not just my voice in the gym. It's the student-athletes saying, 'We know how important it is to us to get a chance to compete, so we're going to do what we can to control it.' “