Eagle Athletes and Coaches Adapt to Pandemic Uncertainty.
By Paul Delaney
Eastern Washington University men’s basketball head coach Shantay Legans had a unique view of the outbreak of COVID-19 back in March.
In Boise for the Big Sky Conference Tournament, Legans vividly recalled the day it all fell apart for his red hot Eagles, a team riding a seven game winning streak that had propelled them to a regular-season championship with a 16-4 record and…well, who knows?
To this day the Eagles’ third-year coach has pondered just what if Eastern had conquered its Boise bracket and reached the NCAA Tournament for just the third time in school history? But that journey was forced off the road by a pandemic that experts feared would break out of its boundaries and rampage across the world — which it has.
An optional shoot-around had just taken place in preparation of Eastern’s game against Sacramento State. His team returned to the hotel and were about to start loading the bus when, “We got the call that the tournament was over, the Big Sky Tournament was canceled,” Legans says.
And shortly after, the NCAA made the previously unthinkable announcement that “March Madness” had also been cancelled. COVID-19 was now deemed serious to a level the world had not seen in more than a century.
For Eastern’s fall and winter sports coaches, it’s been an unprecedented journey. “I’ve just got to keep getting the guys ready for the season,” Legans says of the campaign he was anticipating, including big games with Washington State and Notre Dame.
‘June would usually be a heavy recruiting and travel month for us as coaches. Families are a bit nervous, yes, but it is the same everywhere — so we have to continue to sell what EWU offers and go from there.‘
The Eagles had plenty of unfinished business they hoped to complete from a team that went 23-8 overall. “We’ve got guys who have played in the last two [Big Sky] championship games, [and 2020] would have been a third for them,’ Legans says. “I mean not a lot of players or teams could say, ‘Hey, I played in the two championship games, and we were picked to win the last one. And we won the [regular season] championship.’”
Normally during an interview conducted in late June, Legans and his staff would have had been in regular contact with their players, prepping them for practice and helping to build team camaraderie. For women’s head coach Wendy Schuller, late June typically brings similar team-building activities. She says also that it would have been the time that incoming freshmen would have arrived for summer school.
“They would have been doing workouts with the team,” Schuller says, adding, “With this awesome weather that we’re having, we probably would have taken them out to the lake and gone paddle boarding or some kind of a fun team activity.”
Throughout the pandemic, the closest any coaches have gotten to their players is virtually, through online meetings via Zoom, all in preparation for a season that they hoped would begin in November.
Three Eastern fall teams — football, soccer and volleyball — had a much shorter time frame with which to operate. Throughout the summer, the clock wound down on the start of their seasons with a great deal of uncertainty.
EWU Athletic Director Lynn Hickey, who monitored things perhaps more closely than anyone, also remains in the dark as to what the future might hold for sports such as soccer — which was to begin play in an exhibition match with NCAA Tournament qualifier, Washington State, on Aug. 14 in Cheney.
“We are planning and moving forward like we want to,” Hickey said back in June. But at the time, the state of Washington was still in Phase Two of its reopening process. Phase Three was required in order to have legally more than ten people gathered in one place.
“Even in Phase Three, you can’t have more than 50 people together at a time,” Hickey said. “So it’s kind of hard to put a whole football team together.”
Football lost its spring camp, but was set in August to begin preparations to meet the University of Florida in Gainesville on Sept. 5. When a reporter asked him to peer into his crystal ball, head coach Aaron Best offered, “There are no crystal balls in life, let alone coaching.” That game, with its reported $750,000 guarantee to Eastern, was canceled on July 30.
As with everyone else, Best said, any activities must follow state, university and NCAA guidelines. One of the few “normal” aspects of the pre-camp preparations period, Best said, were voluntary strength and conditioning workouts, albeit with participants limited to five at a time.
[Ed. Note: On Aug. 7, the Big Sky Conference announced its member presidents had voted to postpone the upcoming football season until the spring of 2021.]
For EWU women’s soccer coach Chad Bodnar, summer meant the team returning and also undergoing voluntary workouts. Those were ongoing into August, but were being conducted remotely.
One key missing element, Bodnar says, is recruiting for future teams.
“June would usually be a heavy recruiting and travel month for us as coaches. Families are a bit nervous, yes, but it is the same everywhere — so we have to continue to sell what EWU offers and go from there.”
When asked for his own prediction about the upcoming season, Bodnar also deferred. “I thought three months ago we would be done with this. We are all just living day by day and hoping for good things to happen.”
As with soccer, Eastern volleyball coach Leslie Flores-Cloud says she missed an important recruiting window. “June 15, we were able to chat with the 2022 class of kids. Now we are chatting but we are not able to see anyone.”
Volleyball was slated to begin play August 28-29 in Moscow, Idaho, in a tournament hosted by the Vandals. Did Flores-Cloud think they’d make it to Moscow? “I am scared to answer that,” she said. With fingers crossed, Flores-Cloud then outlined her best-case scenario: a great preseason, a fully prepared team heading into conference play, lots of fans at matches and, most importantly, no one would be getting sick.
[Ed. Note: Just days after postponing fall football, all fall sports were postponed. A decision on winter sports will come later.]
Schuller has discovered somewhat of a silver lining to all the corona craziness. “These are kids who have been accused of being soft and not being able to take care of their business,” Schuller said. “They’ve had this thrown at them and they did it, they just did it. They deserve some credit.”
— Paul Delaney, a former Cheney Free Press reporter is the author of the forthcoming large-format book, Taking Flight: The Incredible Story of Eastern Washington University Football and its Rise as a National Power, his third book on Inland Northwest sports history. To get a preview of the book, or to place an order, visit ewufootballbook.com. A portion of all sales will be directed to various EWU athletic, alumni and other organizations