The Arizona women’s basketball team is currently on the road for the first time this season, getting ready to face Colorado and Utah on Friday and Sunday, respectively.
It will be an experience unlike any other because of the coronavirus pandemic. I caught up with Arizona director of operations Jessika Carrington to see what the Wildcats are expecting, what kind of adjustments have been made to stay case-free, and other things.
Here’s the Q&A, which has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
Ryan Kelapire: What kind of challenges do you expect to face and what kind of things do you have to anticipate that you wouldn’t even normally think about?
Jessika Carrington: The biggest thing is always food. I’m very limited on options with that because we can’t go to restaurants. We can’t even just send our girls across the street to like a Qdoba or to Chipotle to get their food. I have to either negotiate with the hotels, which we’ll always usually eat one or two meals in the hotel, but they’re so expensive, so that’s been something I’ve had to negotiate prices a lot. So we’ll be eating at the hotels a little bit more this season, but then otherwise I’m going to have to either get food delivered or I have to go to the restaurant, pick up the food and then bring it back to the hotel. So food is very challenging. And it’s interesting how this this year is different, and in many ways it might be a little bit more difficult, but it’s also a little bit easier because we can’t do anything. So I don’t have to necessarily like fill time because I can’t take our girls to the mall. Anytime we go to the Bay Area, we like to go to the Golden Gate Bridge or like maybe Pier 39 or do something fun in a city. We’re not gonna be able to do that this year, so there’s gonna be a lot of downtime. So I’ve gone shopping, I’ve bought a lot of cards, I bought some Uno cards and games that they would be able to play either in our meeting space or in their rooms.
RK: Is food like a grab-and-go type of thing this year where players have to eat in their rooms?
JC: That’s another interesting thing. All of that depends on where we’re going and what the county guidelines are. So something I’ve never ever thought about is knowing what’s going on in that specific county where we’re traveling to. So, for example, Colorado, we’ll have a buffet set up in our meeting space, but the players can’t get their own food. There will be an attendant there that will serve them, but we cannot sit in the meeting room, so we have to take the food back to our room.
But in Utah, they’re being a little more lenient, where we can allow our 14 players to eat together in a room as long as there’s only like two at a table. So basically, they would sit with their roommate at a table and eat. So it’s very interesting how different each place, each city we go to will be, and how we can manage that.
RK: I know there are usually two players to a hotel room. Do you have to do things differently now?
JC: The way U of A is taking it, because our players are testing every day and basically we’re kind of our own bubble, we’ll room our athletes with who they live with here. So like Cate (Reese) and Sam (Thomas) live together in Tucson, so they’ll room together on the road. There are a couple of players that will have their own room just simply because they don’t have a roommate in Tucson. It kind of depends on the school’s protocol. There are some schools that are making their team get individual rooms.
RK: Your team has three high-risk players (Cate Reese, Helena Pueyo and Mara Mote). Do you have to do anything extra to keep them safe or do you figure that you’re already taking enough precautions?
JC: Yeah, there’s not real concern with that right now. Like on our charter flight, I strategically have everyone assigned in a certain seat. ... It’s only like a 30 seat plane, and there’s like three individual seats in the back where there’s no one sitting next to them, so that’s where I will put them.
RK: How does testing work on the road? Are you able to borrow another school’s testing resources, do you bring your own, or...?
JC: Yeah, so two days from the day we leave...we will take an antigen test, like the whole travel party will take an antigen test and a PCR. And this is always in the morning from 7:15 to 7:45 in the morning. So on Wednesday, we’ll take an antigen test. On Thursday, we have to take another test and we have to be all clear, we have to get all those results before we leave. So that’s another thing of timing. Whether we’re taking commercial or a charter flight, I have to be mindful to make sure that it’s probably like that mid-to-late afternoon timeframe to make sure that we can get all of our tests back.
But when we go, so far every university has been very lenient. A lot of the the athletic trainers and the lab techs are actually going to meet us at our hotel. Luckily we’re only going to be staying a couple miles from campus, so they’ll come on Friday for game day. They’ll come to our hotel and they’ll do the testing there because it’s real quick. You just swab your nose, put it in the tube...and then they’ll take that directly to the lab.
RK: What happens if someone tests positive?
JC: Well, we have these sensors that I think we’re going to be rolling out this week called [Kinexon SafeZone]. Basically our athletes, our whole travel party will be wearing this sensor all day long, so that way if that were to happen, we would be able to look at the data from these little sensors and it would kind do like this real-time contact tracing element. All of that plays into who’s rooming with who, how they’re sitting at dinner when we’re allowed to sit together, and then even the placement on the plane. So it’s all very strategic, it’s interesting.
On game day, if there’s a positive antigen test, the only thing that can negate that is if the school is able to do a rapid PCR test. And I don’t think many universities have that capability, so in that case, that player and whoever that player had high contact with would be out. And there’s this thing called AirMed that has been contracted with the Pac-12. It’s like a nurse and a doctor on a plane, and they’ll come and take those players along with one of our administrators and fly them back to Tucson.
RK: How long is this trip something you’ve been thinking about or planning for?
JC: In a normal year, we’ll have our non-conference schedule done probably in like April or May, so I’ll start our travel (plans), getting all of that done and I’m usually done by the end of July, August. And then we get our schedule for conference. At the end of July, we’ll usually get like an idea of which weekend will be where, if that makes sense. So I’ll either know if I’m going to be home or I’m going to be away and where we’ll be. So I can kind of start the outline of that at the end of July, early August. And then by the time the schedule comes out, I just kind of put everything into place, so my travel is usually done by October.
But this year we didn’t get our schedule until like mid-November, so that made everything a lot more difficult. For example, for this trip this weekend I didn’t get my hotel contract signed until last week. Because once we get the contract, I just send them across campus for the university to approve them and I get them sent back to me. But I didn’t get those sent back to me until last week and we just got approved for a charter flight on Friday. Otherwise, I had booked some flights on Southwest, but everything has to be ticketed 30 days out. So since we didn’t get our schedule until like 30 days out, basically I cancelled the flights. But I wasn’t able to get the money back, so it all goes as a credit. So I had to basically plan to fly commercial and then hope that our administration approved us to get a charter, which they did. And it’s really nice. I’m very thankful for that.
RK: How does the process of getting a charter work?
JC: Our business office has a list of vendors and I’ll reach out to all of the vendors on that list. Not everyone will respond back, but I have to give at least three to four quotes to our business office. So once I put out my requests, I’ll email and say, ‘Hey, I’m needing to get a price for a 30-passenger and 50-passenger charter flight for this date going here to there.’ And I’ll ask for a round trip option and then I’ll ask for a one-way option.
A harder trip for us, especially coming back from Tucson, are if we’re flying from Pullman, any of the Oregon schools, and even like Berkeley. Those are like hard trips to get back on a Sunday night to Tucson, so I’ll look for one-way options. And then once I get those quotes back, I’ll send it to our business office and then they pretty much take it there as far as picking which one (we use). Usually they go with the least expensive option, but they look at all those details and then they’ll send that out for the contract and get it signed and all that.
RK: Coaches from a lot of sports always say that the Colorado-Utah road trip is the toughest because it’s the only one that requires travel to two states. Do you agree with that?
JC: It’s not extremely difficult, meaning Denver and Salt Lake City are both large airports, so there’s a lot of flights coming in and out. For me, the most difficult trip is usually the Washingtons because Pullman is so small. There’s only three or four flights at that little airport in Pullman that flies to Seattle every day. And it snows a lot in Washington.
Like last year, the last flight out was at 3:25. Our game was at noon. So what happened is I dropped everyone else at the gym at like 10:30 so they could go do their warmups and all that. I had the bus take me and our luggage to the airport in Pullman. I checked all the luggage, dropped it off, got it scanned and all that fun stuff. So I got the tickets and then I went back and made it literally in time for our game. And then once our game was over, I told the players we got to get out quick, we have to go to the airport. It’s always a full flight, but luckily there was a lot of snow and we ended up being delayed by like two hours. But that Pullman trip is such a headache because you never know if you’re going to get out or not. And if you don’t get out, you either have to hope that the hotel has rooms or you end up having to drive to Spokane, stay in a hotel, and try to get out the next morning.
RK: And this year are there any adjustments you have to make when it comes to busing to and from the hotel or the arena or anything like that?
JC: I think it’s the little things that you don’t think about. Like when we’re on the plane or even in the bus, of course we’re going to be wearing masks and a shield. We’re not allowed to eat at all. Usually, we’ll have snack bags on the bus. If they need to drink, they can take their mask down, take a drink and put it back up.
RK: Where do you get the blueprint to all these things? Do you look at how other leagues or schools are doing it?
JC: It’s a little bit of both, but I will say the Pac 12, all the [directors of operations] on the women’s side, we are our own team. We meet at least once a week with each other. We have a Zoom call and we hash it out with each other. While our teams are competing with each other, and our head coaches are battling each other, we’re all on the same team because we understand that these things aren’t going to happen unless we make it happen. And so we’ve all come together and basically we’re helping each other get through the season.
That’s how we find out what other schools are doing and how we’re able to accommodate different situations. So we help each other out more than anything. We have a group text that we’re texting each other all day, every day. So we’re always asking each other questions. ... It’s like our little behind the scenes thing that’s making this whole thing work.