The Gophers volleyball team is a tight group, one that prides itself on its unity. This month, though, the players have found themselves divided.
Not by choice. By coronavirus.
“Not all the team is in the locker room,” coach Hugh McCutcheon said. “Some of them are. And some currently are using the women’s basketball [locker room], just because there’s not enough space between lockers to keep everyone appropriately distanced.”
A more jarring displacement is coming soon. The Big Ten and the Pac-12 announced last week they are postponing fall sports, idling two conferences that have produced 24 of the past 30 NCAA women’s volleyball champions. In a best-case scenario, a season that traditionally begins in the heat of late August will get started in midwinter, provided the pandemic is sufficiently tamed by then.
It’s a complete inversion of the volleyball calendar, and that might be just the start. McCutcheon is bracing for coronavirus-related budget cuts, perhaps as much as 20%. The NCAA has yet to announce whether it will hold the Division I championship next spring or cancel it, and it has not finalized details of how D-I athletes’ eligibility will be affected by pandemic-related upheaval.
The Gophers were eager to get started after reaching the Final Four last year and adding the nation’s top-ranked recruiting class. The next few months will test their ability to manage uncertainty and to remain focused and unified — even if they’re dressing in separate rooms.
“It’s certainly disappointing, no question,” said McCutcheon, whose team was 27-6 last season. “While you hope for the best, you’ve got to prepare for the worst.
“…We’ll wait and see what the NCAA does, and we’ll just follow along and do the best we can with what we’ve got.”
The Gophers began official practices on Aug. 7. In addition to using two locker rooms, players and staff have their temperatures taken when they enter Maturi Pavilion. Coaches wear face masks at all times, and the group practices social distancing at team meals, meetings and other gatherings.
McCutcheon said that has worked “surprisingly well,” thanks to the efforts of the U’s medical, facilities and sports performance staffs. If the Big Ten green-lights a spring season, he is convinced that will run smoothly, too.
He is hoping for a 20-match league schedule, potentially followed by an NCAA tournament in May. If the NCAA tournament is canceled, McCutcheon said there would be discussions about creating “meaningful competition,” either within the Big Ten or with other conferences. Because players are used to intense workouts in the usual spring training block — and tend to carry similar academic loads in fall and spring — he anticipates they would readily adjust.
At this point, though, it’s all conjecture. That extends to his program’s financial condition as well. McCutcheon said he is looking at a 15% to 20% cut to the program’s budget, though he won’t know for certain until it’s determined whether the Gophers can play in the spring.
With so many questions unanswered, McCutcheon is taking the advice he’s giving his players: Simply take each day as it comes.
“You’ve just got to eat the elephant one bite at a time,” he said. “This whole thing is very unique. It’s just the reality of trying to manage an unknown.’’