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Emerging from lockdown: How will Arizona athletes return to their sports after COVID-19?

Training both during lockdown and after could be an issue

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: MAR 01 Women’s Cal at Arizona Photo by Jacob Snow/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When students were all sent home in March, the valid concern was for their immediate safety from the coronavirus. For athletes, that extended time off could eventually have repercussions once they are finally able to return to campus and train. Both Arizona women’s basektball and volleyball are already thinking about that.

“It’s going to be really interesting this year,” Arizona coach Adia Barnes said. “They haven’t done stuff like this before. [Players] are doing home workouts, like abs and stuff, but in Turkey, Sevval (Gül) can’t even leave her apartment.”

Arizona volleyball coach Dave Rubio said that in his sport, there just isn’t much they can offer the athletes under the current conditions. While they have trainers at their weekly Zoom meetings, the kinds of activities they can offer are of limited use.

“There’s not much volleyball that we can do,” Rubio said. “I mean, the volleyball that we could do, there’s not a really a lot of crossover, a lot of value to that that would help them get better.”

That’s especially a concern for players from outside the U.S. Arizona women’s basketball has five returning players and two commits who hail from outside the country. The volleyball team has three incoming players from outside the U.S. Between the two squads, they have players scattered from Canada to Turkey, Mexico to Latvia, Germany to Australia.

Along with those in Turkey, the biggest concerns might be for those in Spain, though. Rising sophomore Helena Pueyo and incoming freshman Marta Garcia are located there. The outbreak in that country rivaled that of nearby Italy, and the social distancing measures were fairly extreme. Like their teammates in Turkey, the Spanish Wildcats have been unable to leave their homes.

The lockdown in Spain is being lifted slowly, and the country is aiming to get their soccer teams back on the pitch. As of now, though, most athletes are still extremely limited. A furor arose over the weekend when Novak Djokovic, the top player in men’s tennis, posted a video of himself playing on a clay tennis court in Spain.

The restrictions aren’t just a concern overseas. Most of the U.S. is under some form of statewide lockdown that has closed places like gyms and even parks. For some, like Aari McDonald, that may not be the worst thing.

McDonald is currently rehabbing the injury that hampered her at the end of the season and played into her decision to forego the WNBA draft. She doesn’t plan to even begin cardio work for another six weeks.

Most Americans are not completely restricted to their homes, though. Rising senior Sam Thomas and former Wildcat Dominique McBryde have been attempting to stay in shape on their own according to a recent story in the Arizona Daily Star. They may not be able to get inside a gym, but there are spaces available to them in Tucson that are large enough to safely exercise.

But that can’t replace work with professional training staff or coaches. If the NCAA, Pac-12 and some state bans on group activity continue into the summer, it could also eliminate the summer workouts that many rely on. That will hurt returning players, but it could be especially hard on incoming freshmen.

During the summer, players are allowed contact time with their coaches as long as they are enrolled in summer classes. The contact coaches get with incoming freshmen during that time is especially important when it comes to acclimating to school and the rigors of college basketball. The limited ability to get outside or into a gym since March compounds the problems even for experienced college players.

What happens when those players return to campus—especially in sports like basketball that require prolonged running? Barnes says that once upon a time schools might not have given it a second thought.

“Years ago, you’d have a conditioning test,” she said. “Let’s say this situation—the pandemic—isn’t happening, but let’s say you were home and didn’t do anything for a month. They wouldn’t know. And then we had a conditioning test on a Monday, and you come back Sunday and kids fall out. Kids were dying.”

With current training and medical knowledge things have changed. That’s true after a normal summer break, but will be even more important now.

“You can’t have athletes, after three months, come back and train them,” Barnes said. “There’s all this protocol now. You could only train them a little bit. So I’m curious to see how that’s going to affect athletics this year.”

Fortunately for Arizona, there are some known quantities that some other members of the Pac-12 may not have. The University is involved in a project for the state of Arizona that developed antibody testing. These tests indicate whether a person has already been infected by the novel coronavirus. University President Dr. Robert C. Robbins called it the “most accurate” antibody test in the country.

The antibody tests will work hand-in-hand with viral load tests that have also been developed on campus. Those tests are for those currently suffering from COVID-19.

The plan is to offer the tests to all of the students, faculty and staff at the University on a voluntary basis. Barnes reported last week that she had just been tested and was awaiting her results.

Robbins outlined his plans for bringing students back to campus on Tuesday morning’s Today show. The goal is to have as many of the 60,000 members of the campus community tested. On top of that, the school will set up infirmaries and dorms that can be used for quarantine. As of now, the University plans to have on-campus classes begin on Aug. 24.

For sports, that could mean less disruption than once appeared likely.

“I think we will play sports,” Barnes said. “I think we will go back to campus and I’m pretty confident in July or August.”

If the teams are back on campus by July or August, what does that mean? For volleyball, it could mean a relatively normal schedule. This year, the team was set to start fall practice on Aug. 10. The first matches are scheduled for Aug. 28.

Rubio believes that it will take about three weeks to get his players back into condition to play volleyball. The problem is that they missed almost all of their spring practice, the bulk of which was scheduled for after spring break.

Rubio thinks that the sport could well tail the decisions of football. The problem for volleyball will come down to facilities. While football has its own facilities, volleyball shares with several other sports, including basketball.

For the Wildcats, the extra complication will be a star player who is set to be shared by volleyball and women’s basketball. Right now, freshman Lauren Ware is scheduled to be with the volleyball team until at least the end of November. When the volleyball season ends, she will move over to basketball.

That’s not the only concern, though. The University of Arizona is not an entity unto itself in the world of college sports. Even with successful testing in Tucson, the Wildcats will still be at the mercy of what is happening in other college communities.

Right now, the plans for next semester vary wildly. Some schools, like Cal State Fullerton, are already stating that they will not be on campus in the fall. Others, like Arizona and Purdue, are already planning for on-campus classes in August.

Barnes has confidence that others will soon be joining Arizona in planning for a fall that, while different, won’t be completely unlike what they’ve experienced in the past. But there might be another barometer to monitor.

“I think that there’s gonna be more testing, because otherwise there’s no end,” she said. “I mean other than wait six more months, and people don’t stay in their houses half the time, anyway. But I just don’t know how there would ever be an end. I think professional sports are going to start back up. Now, if they don’t start, I think that affects everything else.”

In other words, if you’re trying to gauge when college sports could return, it might be time to keep an eye on Major League Baseball.