Smeltzer-Kraft for the Star

Shenandoah University women’s basketball coach Melissa Smeltzer-Kraft addresses her team during last season’s ODAC tournament. The university, in conjunction with the ODAC, announced earlier this week its plan to return to competition beginning in the spring semester.

Shenandoah University wrestling coach Tim McGuire said his team was just starting to hit the point where practices and workouts, which were taking place with no concrete season yet in sight, were beginning to produce a wearing-down effect.

That changed Tuesday when the university announced its plan to return to sports competition at the start of the spring semester in late January.

That news was a boost for McGuire and the wrestling team — which is eagerly awaiting the day it can make its debut as Shenandoah’s newest sport — as well as members of the 21 other sports teams who have been barred from competition since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March.

Women’s basketball coach Melissa Smeltzer-Kraft said Thursday that the announcement, which SU made in conjunction with the Old Dominion Athletic Conference, was a “bold” one on the part of the conference. She likely spoke for all of Shenandoah’s coaches when she added that it gave a renewed sense of purpose after players across all sports spent the last seven weeks practicing for seasons that were not yet marked on the calendar.

“It’s always nice to have a plan,” SU men’s basketball coach Adam Walsh said on Thursday. “It’s nice for our kids to have that. It’s a good target for them to have something on the calendar and I think that’s a lot of different reasons there. There’s physical health, there’s mental health, just having goals outside of school work. That’s why these kids are playing, right? They’re in college, they want to play, so I think it affects them all the way through to not be playing and it’s nice to get something on the calendar.”

Whether the ODAC’s plans, which include a Jan. 23 start date for men’s and women’s basketball to kick off the conference’s return to action, come to fruition remains to be seen. In recent weeks, daily reported cases of COVID-19 in Virginia and elsewhere have started hitting all-time highs, and SU Director of Intercollegiate Athletics Bridget Lyons admitted on Tuesday that there is “absolutely” a concern when considering how those numbers could impact the return-to-play plan.

So while Tuesday’s announcement was the one everyone at SU was waiting for, coaches are remaining cautiously optimistic.

“Not to rain on anybody’s parade, but it’s not like there was cheering when there was that announcement,” Hornets football coach Scott Yoder said. “I think everybody knows OK, we’re gonna have a plan and we’re gonna come back in January and try to get this done, but there’s just so many variables and unknowns that with what the kids have been through, I think they are hopefully cautiously optimistic like myself.”

Even if Shenandoah and the rest of the ODAC make it to the scheduled start date without another shutdown, getting through an entire season without COVID-related postponements or cancellations figures to be a daunting challenge.

Smeltzer-Kraft said she expects everyone to operate with a sense of urgency during what will be a condensed basketball season with 12 conference games, as everyone has learned — quite frequently in 2020 — that nothing is guaranteed. All of the moving parts associated with conducting a season, whatever the sport, add even more layers to the task of getting through it unscathed.

“We can do things really well here and we’re still relying on other people to do their jobs,” Walsh said. “And it’s not even jobs. There’s a degree of luck and there’s a degree of, I don’t know if ‘oversight’ is the best word, but we’re relying on a lot of other people to do things the best that they can possibly do them, no matter what we do.”

While the spring sports schedules across the ODAC remain as previously planned, at least for the time being, the winter and traditional fall sports — which are slated to start games in mid- to late February — will compete in a condensed format.

For football, the ODAC’s plan is for each team to play “upwards of five games,” according to the conference’s website, which is the cutoff that would allow all of those players to retain a year of eligibility. The league could consider splitting into divisions in order to develop a system for crowning an ODAC champ in a five-game season that could include as many as nine teams if no programs opt out.

“If you have the luxury of looking at this like a bonus season, whatever we get to play we’d be excited for,” said Yoder, who added that he empathizes with seniors who may not get the chance to cash in on that extra eligibility.

In men’s and women’s basketball, the ODAC plans to hold a 12-game conference schedule over a period of less than six weeks before holding four-team conference tournaments on March 4 and 6. The winner of those tournaments would earn the ODAC’s automatic bid to their respective NCAA DIII tournaments.

A four-team conference tournament in a 13-team league leaves little margin for error, and Walsh said he’s interested to see how a condensed season alters teams’ strategies.

Smeltzer-Kraft said it’s likely that rather than the typical approach that sees coaches adapt playing styles as teams evolve throughout the course of a traditional 19-week season, the shortened 2021 slate could prompt coaches to develop a game plan to “force in and run with” for the entirety of the campaign.

“That’s what my instinct is saying,” Smeltzer-Kraft said. “It’s crazy because 12 games is still a significant amount of conference games. … This is still going to be a really good case study of the best teams and it’s going to be an absolute sprint as opposed to a marathon to see who wins the ODAC.”

McGuire and Shenandoah’s wrestling team is in a bit of a different situation than the university’s other programs in that it is not affiliated with the ODAC, as the conference does not yet sponsor a wrestling championship. As such, while the ODAC has taken a conference-centric approach to its sports schedules, as have many other leagues, SU’s wrestling team has had to branch out to find opponents for a season that McGuire said will start on Jan. 15.

McGuire said it’s been difficult finding opponents who aren’t locked into conference-only schedules and who are located close enough geographically to warrant a trip for a dual, tri- or quad-event.

Because of the short time between the Hornets’ first competition and the NCAA regional tournaments, which are scheduled for Feb. 27, and the uncertainty that comes with holding a season during a pandemic, McGuire said SU’s wrestling team would focus on expectations and standards this year rather than results in order to strive for guaranteed daily goals.

“Our one singular goal, though, that still exists is going to be the national tournament,” McGuire said, “so even as the season has been shortened up, we’re putting together something and our idea when we’re competing will be to get guys ready for regionals and the national tournament.”

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