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More than 260 days without games for Longwood

More than seven months have passed since the college athletics world came to a halt in early 2020 with the cancellation and postponement of sports due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Longwood athletics felt the impact along with the rest of the college sports world, as the university’s spring sports halted their 2020 seasons in March, and the university’s fall sports have been postponed to the spring of 2021.

However, with masking, testing and social distancing protocols on fields and courts across the country and in Farmville, Longwood’s return to athletics competition is fast approaching. Slated for Nov. 25, opening day of college basketball will mark the official start of the Lancers’ 2020-21 season, and the remainder of the university’s 14 varsity athletics programs will follow suit in the spring.

Leading that charge is Longwood Director of Athletics Michelle Meadows, who in her third year as athletics director and 16th in Longwood’s athletics department sat down to discuss how the pandemic has affected Longwood’s athletics programs and what measures the department has taken to restart competition.

Q: It has been approximately seven months since the Big South Conference and Longwood University postponed sports. Though training has continued in various forms during that time, none of Longwood’s 14 varsity athletics programs have competed in intercollegiate competition since March. What impact has that had on Longwood athletics, and what is the current status of the department and our teams?

A: The most visible impact has certainly been the lack of intercollegiate competition, but there’s a lot more affected behind the scenes. Our teams, our student-athletes and coaches, none of them simply show up on game day and play. There is so much that goes into what they do on a daily basis, how much work they put in on and off the field, how the daily grind of a student-athlete’s life builds grit, strength, toughness, fortitude and all measures of leadership abilities.

When the Big South canceled our spring sports back in March, it was important to us to continue to foster that core mission of personal growth through sports for our student-athletes. That’s been our biggest challenge and also our biggest priority as we’ve tried to navigate all of this, to maintain that transformative environment but to do so in a manner that is safe for them, our campus and the Town of Farmville.

There was a period in the spring and into the summer where everyone, at both the college and professional level of sports, was very hesitant to engage in any sort of competition because so little was known about COVID-19, how it spread, and what activities were safe. But we have learned a lot since then and had time to put together protocols that have allowed our athletes to safely return to training. Even though they’ve had to practice in masks and socially distant, simply getting back on the field has been a big deal for our teams. We are more than two months into the preseason for all of our teams, and our case numbers have been remarkably low. That’s a testament to the commitment of our student-athletes, coaches, staff and our entire campus community to take these guidelines seriously.

Q: How have Longwood’s student-athletes reacted to the restarting of college sports this fall?

A: The large majority of our student-athlete population was excited to get back on the field. There were some, particularly international student-athletes who would have needed to travel back to the United States, who opted not to come back this semester and wait to see how things develop. We certainly respect those decisions, and any student-athletes who do not feel comfortable enough to participate in collegiate athletics in the current climate retain their roster spots and scholarships and won’t be penalized in any way.

However, for a lot of athletes at this level, and as a former college athlete myself I can certainly vouch for this, their identity is very much tied to their sport. When you suddenly take away their opportunity to compete, to be around their teammates, to push themselves physically and mentally daily, that can have a drastic effect on mental health. We see that a lot with players who suffer major injuries, and we saw it on a much larger scale back in the spring when our sports were postponed and ultimately canceled. If you only see these student-athletes play on game day, you might not understand how much they live and breathe their sport every day.

Beginning in late August, our teams returned to campus with the rest of the Longwood student body and began their preseasons, which was paramount for two reasons. The first is that it has allowed them to get their bodies into game shape, which is important to avoid injuries and get prepared for their competitive seasons. The second is that returning to training and their team environments has allowed our student-athletes to continue engaging in all the various character-building elements of sports that we believe in at Longwood.

Q: As we close in on the Nov. 25 start date for college basketball, what is the mood of the athletics department and more generally Longwood’s campus with the 2020-21 season approaching?

A: There’s a general excitement starting to bubble up. I was looking at the calendar, and once we get to opening day of basketball season, it’s going to be 259 days since we had a competition here at Longwood. There’s still a bit of uncertainty about what the seasons are going to look like and how they will transpire due to COVID, but everyone has been working so hard to get to this goalpost of getting back on the court. If we can get basketball started and running, it’s going to create even more optimism for the return of sports in the spring as well.

Q: This fall Longwood has been able to keep campus open and hold in-person classes, and all athletics programs have been able to conduct regular practice and training. To what do you attribute Longwood’s ability to continue in-person operations while navigating the COVID-19 pandemic this semester?

A: I attribute it to a couple things. The institution and our athletics department did a really good job developing a solid plan for when students and student-athletes would come back to campus. We’ve been guided by the various recommendations from the Virginia Department of Health, the Center for Disease Control, the Big South Conference and the NCAA.

I’d also add that everyone’s embraced a collective responsibility for healthy behaviors and the various protocols we put in place – that’s true of our student-athletes and our campus community at large. It’s really been about keeping the end goal in mind, and that’s continuing to have on-campus learning and training opportunities. In order for us to do that, it requires us to make good decisions every day. I think everyone’s embraced that with a sense of gratitude and accountability.

Q: From the Virginia Department of Health to the NCAA, athletics departments in Virginia have received a number of guidelines and mandates related to COVID-19. How have those measures impacted Longwood’s teams, and what does training currently look like for our programs?

A: From the beginning we’ve wanted to make sure we were evaluating all the guidance we were receiving and adapting our protocols and recommendations in alignment with those. But we have also made sure that guidance is consistent with the university protocols that were crafted with guidance from the VDH and CDC. That encompasses social distancing and mask-wearing when we can’t be socially distant.

We’ve had to adapt our facilities to accommodate those protocols, we’ve had to adapt training methods, and coaches have had to be innovative with different styles of training – for example, if they wanted to be able to operate without masks in a given drill versus drills that don’t allow for social distancing and would require masks.

Now that we’re entering into basketball season, we’re also stepping into the testing protocols recommended by the NCAA with our basketball programs. That requires one COVID-19 test per week now, PCR or rapid antigen test, and as we move towards actual competition on November 25th, that will increase to three tests per week. So far that has gone very well; we have seen zero positive results since the season began two weeks ago, but we will continue to be diligent in following the recommendations that have been shared from the NCAA and our conference office.

Q: What is Longwood planning related to hosting fans and spectators at athletics events this year?

A: That is something we are still evaluating based on a number of factors, from what we can feasibly accommodate in Willett Hall to what various health agencies and professionals consider safe usage of larger facilities. Just last week the NCAA released a set of recommended protocols for basketball game day operations, and we are working through several scenarios for our facilities.

We would love to host fans again in Willett and at our other venues, but that’s a determination that may not take shape until later in the season. The bottom line is that mitigating the spread of the virus in our venues is a priority for the sake of our student-athletes and the staff that interact with them daily.

However, we will continue to broadcast a number of our events on ESPN+, including all of our home men’s and women’s basketball games, as well as all of men’s basketball and select other events on the radio at 92.9 FM in Farmville.

Q: How has the pandemic affected Longwood athletics financially?

A: We certainly have not been immune to the financial impacts of COVID. And while it has presented many challenges to our budget, many outside of our own control, it’s something we are meeting head-on.

Those challenges come from the national and local levels, from lost revenue related to the cancellation of the 2020 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament to decreased revenue in our own corporate sponsorships, ticket sales, and game guarantee revenue this year. On the expense side, the major impacts have come from things related to making our training environment safer and meeting the NCAA regulations for competition, like facility adjustments, testing, and personal protective equipment for our student-athletes and staff.

The financial piece is complicated and requires focused attention and creativity to overcome, and it’s helped greatly that our coaches and staff have understood that from the get-go. The bottom line is that if we expect our student-athletes to be able to overcome adversity, we should expect the same of ourselves.