You don’t have to be a member of the baseball or fastpitch softball teams to realize that COVID-19 has thrown Saint University of Minnesota student-athletes one heck of a curveball.
And the Cardinals have been doing their best to hit it out of the park.
“I am very proud of the student-athletes, coaches, and athletic staff of all of our athletic programs — they have worked hard to adapt to these very challenging times,” said Saint Mary’s athletic director Brian Sisson, noting that student-athletes have combined to be tested over 2,711 times. “From testing, to creative practices, to staying-safe policies, it has been a total team effort from top to bottom.”
It certainly takes flexibility to be able to adjust practices to stay in compliance with the COVID-19 protocols. And when you have a team of 56, like baseball coach Nick Winecke has, flexibility and creativity are paramount.
“It’s a challenge, no way around that,” said Winecke, noting that he uses three pods for his pitching staff — and they practice throughout the day around their class schedules — while the two pods of position players split time in the Gostomski Fieldhouse. “Every member of this team lost a year of baseball last season, either at the collegiate or high school level, and they are all really trying hard to do the right thing for the Saint Mary’s community as well as our program.”
With every Saint Mary’s athletic program affected, each Cardinal coach has adopted his or her own special way of keeping their athletes safe.
Volleyball sanitizes the volleyballs before and after each practice; they have the same practice partner for each practice; they arranged locker room lockers by roommates; and no high-fives or huddling-up are allowed.
“Our team has taken this very seriously, and will do whatever it takes to stay on campus and stay on track to compete,” said volleyball coach Jackie Kiecker. “They hang out in small groups and eat lunch with the same crowd. They have held each other accountable during the soft quarantine process. Our captains have been great leaders and setting the example for our team.”
Men’s hockey practiced through the first several weeks in pods, meaning there were no full-team practices in preparation for their first two games; they have strictly enforced no one gathers in the locker room for more than 15 minutes before or after practice and at all times in small groups; all off-ice workouts are now done individually; and team meetings have been over Zoom.
“I couldn’t be more proud of the resilience of our student-athletes,” said men’s hockey coach Ryan Egan. “They have adapted well without complaint. It goes to show all of us here at Saint Mary’s how important competition is to our student-athletes and the sacrifices they are willing to make to stay healthy and compete as Cardinals.”
Women’s hockey has rearranged their locker room so the players that live together are sitting together. They are also working out, eating, and sitting on the bus with their roommates, while masking and social distancing.
“Our players are very willing to comply with all of the COVID protocols,” women’s hockey coach Sarah Murray said. “They are just so excited to be on the ice together and to finally getting the opportunity to compete again. Over winter break, we had weekly team-building sessions via Zoom, and during one session we discussed goals for the season. Many players expressed their goal of having a COVID-free season and understood that it would take everyone being very disciplined and committed to following protocols very closely.”
Both basketball teams are masking up and social distancing, along with implementing a completely new in-game setup with the teams utilizing the opposite side of the court, chairs spaced 6 feet apart. Each player is assigned their own chair for the entire game, and different chairs are used/sanitized during timeouts.
“I couldn’t be prouder of our student-athletes for sticking to the protocols and doing everything they can to keep our community safe and ensure our competitions can continue,” said women’s basketball coach David Foley.
Men’s soccer has adhered to masking when not on the field of competition; using the locker room only as a changing space; and have created separate areas for each group when hydrating.
“During the fall, and continuing into this semester, our players have really committed to keeping themselves and everyone around them safe,” said men’s soccer coach Corbin Bowers. “Accountability is one of our core values as a soccer program, and I see them being accountable with our COVID protocols. We are making smart decisions and doing everything possible to stay healthy so we can be back on the pitch as soon as possible.”
Track and field has limited locker room use and is breaking the teams up into six different practice times per day so they can be in small groups. The team also converted a racquetball court into a throwing area — hanging a net from the ceiling and putting some mats down on the ground. It gives the team not only a safe area to train, but frees up valuable court space in the fieldhouse for other sports, as well as general students.
“It is challenging to run hard workouts on the track while wearing masks, but we are doing our best to follow all campus COVID protocols,” said first-year track and field coach Jake Malm.
Along with the various safety precautions teams are taking, all Cardinal student-athletes and select staff, depending on the sport, are tested one to three times a week as coordinated by the Winona Hy-Vee pharmacy, with support from Saint Mary’s athletic staff. Testing, which allows Saint Mary’s student-athletes to meet testing protocols, occurs on campus, and all social distancing and safety procedures are followed.
“Our students’ safety is our primary concern,” Sisson said. “We’re incredibly grateful to Hy-Vee for partnering with us. Through their generosity, we are able to not only meet the MIAC testing protocols, but we are able to better care for our students, while allowing them to fulfill their college athletic career goals.”