The memories are fond for Eastern Washington defensive end Debore’ae McClain, but reminders of a void that has warped his unusual September and October.
McClain’s phone alerts him of his most popular photos from a year ago, evocations that recently included a 2019 road game alongside grinning, jersey-clad teammates.
This was months before the spread of the novel coronavirus, when EWU – and college athletics at large – had more reasons to smile. They were competing.
That won’t happen in 2020. Not for the Cheney school’s fall athletes, anyway.
COVID-19 concerns pushed Big Sky Conference fall athletics to spring seasons, throwing a wrench into thousands of student-athletes’ regular preparation.
The wait-and-see game since March’s coronavirus-induced shutdown has been the most mentally taxing aspect of the unprecedented delay.
“At first it took a toll, but now we have more time to prepare,” said McClain, whose team was ranked No. 18 in the Football Championship Subdivision preseason poll. “I was fortunate to have (weights) at home during quarantine. I’ve used this time to focus on family and school.”
EWU, which is doing mostly online Zoom courses and small, socially distant in-person labs, feels like a “ghost town” without athletics and sizable groups of students walking to class, according to several athletes.
Much different than what McClain is seeing on his television on Saturdays.
“They’re playing (college) football right now in other areas,” McClain said.
“We’re athletes, so when we see that, we obviously miss it. Right now, we’re just taking it day to day, playing it safe. Condolences to the families affected (by the virus).”
EWU soccer player Brittany Delridge doesn’t have to look too far to see live competition.
“My brother is playing high school football right now in Missoula,” Delridge said. “It really makes me miss playing games.”
Women’s cross country runner Megan Pitzman can’t avoid seeing other races.
“You see on social media, the news around cross country, other teams in the south competing against each other,” Pitzman said. “Kind of hard to see that and hardly be able to do a practice here.
“Even with schools in our conference, some are able to do more than us right now. I’m a little jealous of that.”
Major college football around the country has returned, but the overwhelming major FCS-level teams are slated for spring seasons.
A lack of resources is among the primary reasons they aren’t mirroring their big-school counterparts.
Major TV contract money is an incentive for Football Bowl Subdivisions teams playing in a pandemic, which is helping pay for the ample coronavirus testing required to play in accordance to local and NCAA law.
Washington State and Washington will begin their Pac-12 slate without fans next month.
Phase 2 of Spokane County’s reopening plan prevents large groups, including college sports teams, forcing to EWU athletics to work in small, fragmented groups until EWU can pay for three coronavirus tests per week, per athlete in contact sports.
Track, golf, cross country and tennis would require far less testing, according to EWU athletic director Lynn Hickey, who said the Big Sky Conference is working on getting a more affordable rate for testing, currently estimated at $100 a test.
EWU is testing 25% of its athletes, Hickey said, and each athlete on campus is subject to regular thermometer testing.
The football team is doing small group workouts and conditioning in anticipation for spring football-like practices in the coming preparations, a primer for a true eight-game regular season.
The FCS spring postseason schedule was announced last month, but the Big Sky has yet to release its football schedules as it tries to navigate the eight-state conference’s different restrictions and what it can afford for testing.
Schedules are expected to be released this month, giving more optimism for an EWU football team eager to put on pads and helmets again.
Some schools in the Big Sky – including three-time defending champion Weber State – have already started full-padded team practices.
“At first, I thought ( a spring season) wasn’t going to be taken seriously,” McClain said. “Wasn’t sure there wasn’t going to be a playoff system. But now that there is, I’m excited for it.”
The prospect of chilly regular-season games in February is fine with the Eagles, whose fall athletes are typically acclimated to freezing temperatures.
Delridge, whose team is often at or near the top of the Big Sky women’s soccer standings, was looking forward to a fall season in which the Eagles were picked third in the preseason conference poll.
The spring works, too, she said.
“It was hard back in August, not knowing if we were going to go or not,” Delridge said. “It was a bummer that it got postponed, but we’ll get to play again early next year. I feel sorry the Californians on the team who will be dealing with the cold.”
Delridge is also reminded of games and road trips she’d otherwise playing in if not for the pandemic.
“I still get alerts on my phone that say I have a game today,” Delridge said. “It’s tough.”
Because of the socially distant nature of cross country, EWU athletes are doing team workouts with masks around their necks, which they put on when running and cover their face when talking and interacting with others, Pitzman said.
“It’s a hard time,” Pitzman said. “But we want to be ready when it’s time to compete. Fortunately, we can still run, but a lot of teams at EWU like football and basketball can’t do their full-team drills.”
EWU volleyball is also dealing with restrictions.
Puaoolelagi Sao, a libero, has taken the postponement of her senior season in stride, but it’s come with its share of challenges.
“When the season comes, and it is pushed to winter, who even knows what will happen then,” Sao said. “Our coaches have done a great job of keeping us prepared in this situation.
Right now it’s mentally hard. It’s weird, but we’ve been keeping busy.”
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