Illinois coaches react to fall sport cancellations

Illinois+Womens+Volleyball+Head+Coach+Chris+Tamas+stands+on+the+sidelines+during+the+match+against+Indiana+on+Oct.+4%2C+2019+in+Bloomington%2C+IN.

Photo Courtesy of Fighting Illini

Illinois Women’s Volleyball Head Coach Chris Tamas stands on the sidelines during the match against Indiana on Oct. 4, 2019 in Bloomington, IN.

By Claire O'Brien, Staff Writer

This Monday, the Illinois cross country team returned to campus and began practices for their upcoming season. The women’s cross country team went to the NCAA championships last season, but a return trip won’t be happening this year. On the second day of practices, the team found out that their season, like all other Big Ten fall sports, has been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But for cross country, the season is effectively canceled as the team competes in track and field in the spring. The spring outdoor track season had been called off as well when the NCAA halted sports in March, but the team is scheduled to host the 2021 Big Ten outdoor track championships at Demirjian Park.

For other fall sports, the Big Ten is discussing the possibility of playing fall sports in the spring. Cross country head coach Sarah Haveman said that having her sport in the spring was off the table for her team.

“Moving cross country to the spring is not an option for us because of track,” Haveman said.

In mid-July, Illinois athletics gave an update about fall sports operations. At the time, no teams had schedules up and outdoor sports in Illinois were limited to 20% capacity. Indoor sports were not having fans at all.

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    Throughout the summer, Illinois brought athletes back to campus with a strict protocol, including frequent testing for all athletes. Head soccer coach Janet Rayfield said that she felt safest being in the athletics “bubble” this summer while during the pandemic.

    But the teams are no longer preparing for fall competition. This Tuesday, the Big Ten was the first “Power 5” conference to call off fall sports. The Pac-12 soon followed later Tuesday. As of Thursday afternoon, the Big 12, Atlantic Coast Conference and Southeastern Conference are proceeding with fall sports.

    Professional sports in the United States have come back to some extent. The National Women’s Soccer League hosted a tournament in a bubble in Utah, and none of the players and coaches in the bubble tested positive for COVID-19. The NBA has returned in a bubble in Florida, and has seen few cases of the virus. Major League Baseball has not been in a bubble, and a recent Chicago Cubs- St. Louis Cardinals series had to be canceled due to large numbers of positive COVID-19 tests amongst the Cardinals.

    Bubbles for college sports have not been a large part of the conversation surrounding bringing back college athletics, but that didn’t stop volleyball head coach Chris Tamas from mentioning one regarding to basketball.

    “Kofi and Ayo (are) coming back, so better get that bubble (going),” Tamas said.

    The fall season was set to be the debut of Demirjian Park. The park was originally set to be finished and opened prior to the now-delayed fall 2020 season, but will be done in the coming weeks.

    “We’re looking for (a) late October completion date,” Rayfield said.

    The soccer team played most of its 2019 home games on the field at Demirjian Park, and the first game played on the field was September 15. The team won’t be competing at Demirjian Park for the foreseeable future, but Rayfield said the team sees the construction every day at practice.

    All three coaches stressed that stopping the spread of COVID-19 is key to bringing back sports and hope to have fans back in the bleachers when they do return.

    “If we can get (the) spread of this under control, (and) things move in a positive direction, Demirjian Park is open,” Rayfield said. “Thinking about what it could look like in the spring with fans in the stands (is) certainly (something) that makes me smile.”

    Until sports come back, the teams plan to continue practicing as long as it is safe to do so, and they anticipate the return of competition.

    “When the lights come back on, we’ll be ready to roll,” Haveman said.

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