As the COVID-19 pandemic started affecting the sports world, Loyola Athletics Director Steve Watson said he knew he’d need to take action sooner rather than later.
“We’ve been saying for the last few days we’re in uncharted waters here,” Watson told The Phoenix. “[It’s] nothing that anyone could have predicted to happen so quickly.”
That action came March 12 when Loyola announced all remaining spring sports games and practices would be canceled, meaning the four spring sports — men’s volleyball, softball, golf and track and field — saw their seasons end abruptly. The decision was made as part of an effort to contain the spread of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel 2019 coronavirus, and came the same day Loyola announced classes would be moving online for the remainder of the semester.
Now, Watson said the athletics department still has to focus on getting ready for next year. Without spring sports, the department is still getting prepared for next year as best it can, all things considered.
“Prepping and getting ready for next year is something that’s not going to stop,” Watson said. “It doesn’t stop. It’s probably not as high on the priority list as it typically would be this time of year … but it doesn’t go away, and it’s surely something that we’ll continue to work on.”
Loyola wasn’t the first to make a move. In the 24 hours prior to its decision, the NBA and NHL announced their seasons would be suspended, MLB suspended Spring Training, the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) canceled the women’s basketball tournament, the NCAA canceled March Madness and multiple conferences canceled their spring seasons.
As everything unfolded, Watson said he started thinking about the next steps for the athletics department, primarily how to keep the athletes and staff members safe and healthy during the pandemic.
“Our number one priority from the beginning was the safety and well-being of our athletes, our coaches and our staff,” Watson said. “As things started to progress, it became evident that … the whole idea of business as usual was not going to be in play anymore.”
He said it wasn’t necessarily an easy decision, though, especially because it means senior athletes saw their careers come to an abrupt end. One of those seniors, women’s basketball player Tiara Wallace, saw her final season end at the MVC Tournament March 12.
The Ramblers were three hours away from a matchup with Indiana State University when the league announced the tournament would be canceled, and Wallace said it not only meant the end of her season, but likely the end of her basketball career.
“I knew that I wasn’t trying to play overseas or in the [WNBA], so it was really my last time playing the sport,” Wallace said. “I was just trying to give it everything I had every time I stepped foot on the court.”
Loyola’s announcement came six days after the men’s basketball team’s stunning loss to Valparaiso University at the MVC Tournament. Although the Ramblers were looking to make a strong case for a second straight National Invitation Tournament appearance, questions rose about whether or not they would pursue another postseason tournament.
Watson said if the team wouldn’t have made the NIT, the season would’ve been over.
“We felt that we had a decent, outside shot at the NIT,” Watson said. “We talked to the [MVC] office about that. They were … planning to push hard for us for the NIT bid, but that’s as far as we were going to go. If that didn’t materialize, we were going to pack it in at that point.”
Now, Watson said the athletics department is focusing on helping students adjust to their new lifestyles. Some department staff even went with athletes who live off-campus to make sure they had enough groceries.
All athletics department personnel are also now working from home as part of social distancing efforts, and Watson said he’s adjusted well so far.
“I haven’t driven my wife and son crazy yet, but that could happen here in the not-too-distant future,” Watson joked. “It is what it is. We’re going to manage through it, we’ll figure it out and we’re going to keep making sure people are staying safe and doing what they need to do to be as healthy as possible.”