When the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin announced in late July that fall sports competitions at its member campuses were postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it might have seemed the Carroll athletic program would simply shut down for the fall semester.
While students returned to Carroll in late August to begin in-person classes, there would be no Saturday football games at Schneider Stadium, no cross-country meets, no soccer matches. The CCIW decision, matched by most college conferences across the country, affected all nine fall sports programs, including football, men’s and women’s cross-country, men’s and women’s golf, men’s and women’s soccer, women’s tennis and volleyball.
“This decision was not taken lightly,” said Carroll University President Cindy Gnadinger. “We explored all options available to bring our fall student-athletes back in a safe manner this season. Unfortunately, postponing competitions was the best way to keep our student-athletes safe in what was a unique fall semester.”
Instead of closing up shop, however, Carroll’s coaches and staffs headed into overtime, to find ways to deliver authentic, meaningful experiences for the university’s student-athletes.
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“As an athletic department, it is our job to provide student-athletes with the best possible experiences, which include keeping them safe and healthy,” said Director of Athletics Michael Schulist. “This decision no doubt impacted our student-athletes’ experience. Fortunately, our administration and coaching staff were committed to finding creative and safe ways to keep our student-athletes engaged this fall with an eye on competing again in spring.”
The goal was to find a way to provide the student-athletes with as much of the usual athletics experience as possible—safely. To do that, students were divvied up into small group cohorts in each sport for a 4-week-long practice season. The men’s and women’s soccer, cross-country, volleyball, men’s lacrosse and tennis teams went first—about 200 students in all.
Student-athletes in each sport began training in small groups while undergoing frequent monitoring and testing designed to quickly identify and help contain any potential outbreaks. With no cases uncovered, group sizes were gradually increased.
Overseeing the health precautions was Steven Staab ’02, M.Ed. ’08, Carroll’s head athletic trainer. “While competition was canceled, we still wanted our student-athletes to get the collegiate experience,” he explained. “Especially incoming first-year students. We wanted them to be able to learn their sport and bond with one another and experience all those team building experiences coaches offer.”
Staab outlined a host of measures designed to maintain a safe environment and root out any asymptomatic cases. “We know that for people in this age group, a full third may be asymptomatic.” There were daily symptom checks, routine temperature monitoring (students regularly had to walk past a thermal imaging camera that would note any fevers) and frequent individual temperature checks with handheld thermometers. Spring and winter sports followed the same procedures.
The monitoring and testing (about 700 COVID-19 tests were administered in the fall), combined with the small cohort model, helped identify and contain a handful of cases before any spread occurred.
“The thoroughness of our planning really helped control any type of spread within any sport,” reported Staab. “This is really about containment. (With this system in place) when we do have a case, we’re able to contain it in a matter of hours.
Further, the student-athletes, committed to a series of behaviors designed to limit their own exposure, became role models, exhibiting good personal hygiene, physical distancing and symptom monitoring to the whole campus.
One of the largest question marks coming into this fall across the country was "how do you have a safe football season?"
First-year head coach Mike Budziszewski and his staff did everything they could to make sure their athletes stayed distant. “If we noticed our team coming together and having conversations in close quarters, we yell ‘arms out!’ and our guys put their arms out and spun around like helicopters to make sure they were staying socially distant,” said Budziszewski.
With football being in the second cohort of sports this fall, the team had the luxury of spending the first four weeks with strength and conditioning before putting their helmets on in the second four weeks. Even during their strength season, the team followed masking and distancing guidelines. Once they hit the practice field, the first two weeks were non-contact. The only shared equipment the team used were within their accountability partners, a term Budziszewski coined frequently this fall.
“That was a layer of insulation that we put within our plan to make sure that if one person tests positive for COVID, it wasn’t an entire group because they were all blocking the same sled or using the same shield,” said Budziszewski.
That contact tracing technique certainly seemed to help, with very few positive tests coming from Pioneer athletics all fall. “I think our guys took a lot of pride in that every week when we came out and said ‘hey, no positive test’ they knew they were doing the right things,” said Budziszewski. “We had a really good understanding, from not only the coaches but the community as a whole, that if we were going to be stewards of our football brand, then we needed to make sure we were doing it better.”
Women's Track and Field
When each program was asked to find ways to break teams into small groups, Head Women’s Track and Field Coach Shawn Thielitz ’98 found it easy. “We just went by event group,” said Thielitz. Sprinters stayed together, throwers stayed together, so on and so forth.
“We tried to make it as individualistic as possible for those event groups,” said Thielitz. “The athletes knew that if they were warming up or if they weren’t doing anything strenuous, the mask had to be up.” With the track and field program being one of the largest teams at Carroll, the student-athletes served as highly visible role-models for the rest of the campus to follow guidelines.
Thielitz said the students knew they were leaders on campus. “They were given a carrot, like you can have this if you do it correctly. We stressed we want to be leaders on the track but also in the classroom.” Each team had to undergo testing each week, and Thielitz said his athletes complied happily. “I think it reinforced the bubble mindset,” he said, as students understood how quickly a positive test could spread.
Coach Susie Foster’s team had to adopt a completely new mentality. Early in the summer, the team learned there would be no competitions this fall and that they would have to relearn how to practice as a team in small groups. Foster said it was all about embracing the adversity. “You weren’t going to compare this, you’re going to have to completely create a new environment, while adhering to the rules at the same time,” she said. The roster of 49 student-athletes was broken into groups of 10-15. “We wanted to keep them in groups with their roommates, people they were traveling with, sharing the same classes, things like that,” said Foster.
As for being role models for the rest of campus, Foster said it was really nothing new. “We talk about it a lot: when you wear the logo on your chest, what does that mean? What does it mean when a professor sees it in a classroom, or when other students see you on campus? What does it represent when you’re out in Waukesha?”
Foster told the students it was a gift to be able to have a positive impact in a situation like this. The team had a full scrimmage at the end of the shortened practice season. “I think to have a chance to reward the seniors for the four years that they’ve put in and to recognize them and their families for all of their hard work, I just thought that it was something really special.”
The short, four-week practice schedule wasn’t anything new for men’s lacrosse or head coach Zack Olsen. “It’s a standard four weeks for us, regardless of what’s going on right now with COVID. We used our non-traditional four weeks with 16 practices and it ran smoothly.”
Olsen used the small-group format to create competition. “We had them compete against each other in relay races and different passing ground ball drills. Whoever won that competition then picked out an assortment of workouts they had to complete, like 15 burpees or so.”
The coach was pleased with the students’ efforts to limit their personal exposure. “They all wanted to be out there, so they definitely held true to that accountability,” said Olsen. “Overall, they were happy to be back out on the field and now they’re getting it done in the weight room with the same groups.”