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When the Drexel University men’s basketball team returned to campus for the 2020–2021 season, Matey Juric, a third-year biology student and guard on the team, remembers Head Coach Zach Spiker instilling in them an age-old concept that had taken on new meaning for a season that would prove to be unlike any other.
“He kept saying, ‘The most disciplined team will win and will be the last one standing,’” Juric remembered of Spiker during that socially distant, late September meeting outside the Daskalakis Athletic Center, which kicked off for men’s basketball the already delayed fall sports season. “He meant it obviously in basketball terms, but also, I think more importantly, with the COVID situation, we needed to make sure we were staying disciplined with all the protocols.”
It was clear from that point on for players and coaches alike that not only was the season delayed, but it was going to be a lot different. Working with the Philadelphia Department of Health, the Drexel Athletics Department was poised to put a myriad of protocols in place so that practice and competition for basketball and wrestling — which the health department had deemed “high-risk” sports due to taking place in doors and little ability for players to social distance — could get underway. Those protocols included everything from pod practice in the Buckley Bubble vs. on the basketball court or in the wrestling room, restricted use of locker and weight rooms, and later, modified travel and meal arrangements for away games as well as daily testing.
Most notably, everyone from the players to the coaches to the support staff would have to follow strict social distancing guidelines throughout the season. Once competition started, in November for basketball and January for wrestling, one positive test amongst any of these individuals meant the entire operation had to be shut down for two weeks.
Spiker says he can barely remember the meeting now, and little did he know at the time that his team would never even play a game on their home court inside the DAC due to having 12 of their 28 total regular season games cancelled because of positive cases on the opposing team.
But he has always known his team would perform with the necessary discipline to avoid the fate suffered by rivals.
“We did win a championship,” Spiker said, referencing his team’s March 9 Colonial Athletic Association conference victory over Elon after the tumultuous season, and subsequent bid to the NCAA tournament. “We also won the COVID championship, if that makes sense. I don't think anyone else in our conference went without a pause once play started.”
The women’s basketball team, led by Head Coach Amy Mallon, sealed a similar fate for their pandemic season, winning a matching CAA title on March 13 against arch rivals the Delaware Fightin’ Blue Hens. Though the team did have a pause in team activity due to COVID protocols and postponed two games right before the holidays (four others were postponed due to rival teams during the regular season), there was never a doubt for Mallon about her team’s commitment to being successful despite everything stacked against them.
“I don't think they had any other way then to be successful because they already had that fight in them,” she said. “It was pretty cool to see, as a coach, that come together.”
Mert ‘67 & Joanne ’69 Hill Head Coach Matt Azevedo said his wrestlers also came out on top of a tough season that was postponed to start in late January, and heavily condensed. But this same commitment prevailed, despite pitfalls such as not being able to weight train, training in the Buckley Bubble vs. the team’s regular practice space, and having to reduce the roster to minimize risk.
But once wrestling got up and running, there were no cases or stoppages related to COVID for Drexel’s team, which also sent six wrestlers to the NCAA tournament.
“We had two weeks to prepare for our first competition. Normally, our wrestlers would wrestle anywhere from 20 to 30 matches between November and March, but in a seven-day period, we wrestled six teams, and made weight four or five times in that span,” Azevedo said. “It wasn't ideal. We didn't have a lot of time to prepare, but our wrestlers were determined. They were focused. They were willing to do whatever it took to make this season happen.”
How did players, coaches and staff keep their eye on the prize throughout their pandemic season? What were the tolls and the triumphs from each observed regulation, setback, sacrifice and triumph? Here’s more from these Dragons in their own words:
The Lead Up
Mike Westerfer, assistant athletics director for sports medicine and adjunct faculty for Goodwin College, on planning the high-risk sport seasons:
“It was a long process to get where we needed to go to get these teams up and running. There was nothing out there that told you how to do this. My staff had to become COVID testers… and quickly ramp up and learn that. Our staff had to become contact tracers and case investigators. It was a big lift to get to where we needed to go, to get on court and the mat — a lot of meetings, a lot of communication. Then we had to communicate all this to the student athletes.”
“They started working out when they first came back in pods of four. [Then we had to figure out] how do we set up the pods? Who should be with each other? Should it be the people who are roommates or should it be by position? There was a lot, and we had to go through this with every team and every coach, and they racked their brains with a million questions. Basically, we had to take everything we do in sports, evaluate it, think about it and how can we do that safely?”
Mallon on planning for the season:
“It was uncharted waters for everybody. Our biggest philosophy for this year was we’re just going to go with the flow. We have to be flexible. We don't know what’s going to go on each day, because we really didn't. I think that became more evident with the team, and that was something we were trying to help them work through and process, but there was also the excitement of having an opportunity to be back together because we'd been apart for six months.”
Azevedo on planning for the season:
“When you think of two athletes wrestling each other in close contact, you think, how can you do that in a pandemic with a super contagious virus? But I think what I and a lot of the wrestling community tried to communicate is that, actually, you can do it safely, and we can actually do it in smaller groups. Where a sport like basketball has to practice with their whole team for the most part, we as an individual sport can literally have them wrestle with one teammate the whole season. Because of the weight classes, you can break things up and actually do it fairly safely.”
Kayla Bacon, a fourth-year environmental science major and guard on the women’s basketball team, on practice and daily COVID-19 testing and protocols:
“We didn't touch weights for at least a month and a half when we first got here, which was different because we're used to getting in the gym four times a week and lifting heavy. It kind of felt like everything we were doing was a made up workout — stuff to do at a social distance. So that was interesting, and running with the mask was not fun.”
“I would definitely say it brought a lot of responsibility on us as individuals. We felt that pressure, like I don't want to be the one that makes us miss out on two weeks. It's four games for us in a really short season this year, like four games is a lot. So, everyone felt that weight, and everyone was just kind of was like, ‘Hey, we're going to put the team above ourselves and just sacrifice our wants and needs.’ We are college students. We want to have our fun, too. But for those couple of months, we had to lock in and know that we're trying to win a championship, go to the tournament. And if this is what we have to do, that's just what we did. And the school made it a lot easier.”
“I felt a sense of safety because we were getting tested so frequently and we really couldn't do anything on campus and no one was around us, so we knew that we didn't have it. Every day by a certain time, we knew we were in the clear. So it gave us a sense of comfort, being able to go on the court and practice and not have to worry.”
Juric on returning, testing and social distancing:
“We were getting tested every day around 7:15 in the morning, for three, four months. But I think it honestly helped us in the long run because a lot of the guys were in the building way earlier than they probably would have been otherwise. I think it made a big difference in our level of play throughout the months.”
“No one wants to be that guy that tests positive and the whole team has to shut down because of them. It’s a horrible feeling. … I know other teams in our conference were getting tested only twice or three times a week. And, you know, sometimes if you're waiting those two or three days between tests, you're like, ‘Oh, shoot, did I come in contact with someone or catch the virus?’ But every day here, we knew we were good.”
“We joked around on our team a little bit [that social distancing was] like a really nice glorified jail experience. You’re just kind of confined to your room and you get to go work out and practice and you just come right back to your room. … I’m sure the coaches didn’t mind that part of it.”
Juric on missing games due to cases on opposing teams:
“You work so hard. You sacrifice so much to be able to play. And then the other team kind of lets you down in a sense. But I think it brought us together those weeks because we just practiced with each other nonstop. I think it made us better because we got to work on ourselves more instead of worrying about what other teams are doing and trying to scout the other teams and their personnel and plays. We got to really kind of fine tune our offense and defense, which made a difference.”
Azevedo on practice and a shortened season:
“We wrestled as well as we could have. I think our kids showed a lot of heart, had a lot of guts. One of our mottos is ‘Bring the HEAT,’ and ‘HEAT’ is an acronym for heart, effort, attitude, and the ‘T’ is for together, doing that together. And I think that we exemplified that this season. Even though we may not have had the same preparation that other teams had in the fall. I mean, some teams never stop practicing. In different parts of the country, the pandemic was viewed a little bit differently and there were teams that practiced all summer long, all fall. So, with our limited preparation, I think we did we did a great job. It's a testament to the kids on our team, their discipline to be tested on a daily basis.”
Mallon on receiving a false positive test at the NCAA tournament:
“I went into a holding room and I was panicked. I was like ‘I can’t believe we’re going to go to the NCAA tournament and I’m not going to be able to coach this team because I just tested positive.’ We chartered over, and so there was no chance. I hadn’t been anywhere besides around my team, so I was thinking if I'm positive, the whole team going to be. That was in my head, but then it ended up being a false positive. That’s just the fear that constantly happens.”
The Pay Off
Bacon on winning the CAA championship:
“People kind of just overlooked us this the whole season, especially with our schedule. It was hard playing a team twice in the same weekend, less than 24 hours later, and winning two games a weekend, honestly. So it was nice winning [the championship]. Actually getting there, proving our games every single time. We had no easy games, it felt like. So just getting out there and winning and finally knowing that all the sacrifices we made this whole year finally paid off.
Juric on winning the CAA championship:
“It's kind of like the cherry on top, just winning it all, knowing you went through this whole year and it felt so long and like it was never going to end, and it finally, finally paid off. You finally got something out of it. And it was just a great feeling, especially all the support that we got after we won.”
Spiker on making it to the NCAA tournament for the first time in 25 years:
“I want to go back. It's motivating, it's very motivating. It’s awesome to see the guys have that experience. As a coach, you get to do it and see it in a couple of different ways. But I hope it's a very motivating experience for our guys to continue to work, and a great goal to work towards.”
Mallon on making it to the NCAA tournament:
“I tried to remind my team, some people play basketball for a lifetime and never have the opportunity to go while coaching or playing. So, the fact we were there, it was obviously because of all of them and what they’d done. [I wanted them to] make the most of it.”
Looking Toward Next Year
Spiker on next season:
“I think that it's a group that's excited about what can happen next year. You shift right away into that retention mode, recruiting mode and trying to help the program and the school with a little bit of branding and continue to do things like this to this. This doesn't need to happen once every 25 years or once every 12 years. We want to make this a more regular basis and create a community that sees so many great stories and great things that come from events like this for the school.”
Azevedo on his team’s accomplishments and looking forward to next season:
“I'm beside myself with pride. I knew that our team could answer the call, if you will, or step up to this challenge. I think the athletic department was a little skeptical. ‘How are you going to wrestle and not have positive cases throughout a season?’ … And I just said, “Hey, give us a chance. I believe in this group. I know these guys can do it. I know they have the discipline and the motivation.’ We feel like this is a team that could be nationally ranked, at least top 25. We have individuals that we know can be top eight in the nation and even compete for national championships. That's where their mindset is at. And so, we just want to do everything we can to get prepared for that. So we're super excited about next season. It can't get here quick enough.”