Coaches and staff members of South Carolina State Athletics have a steady dose of video meetings, phone calls with student-athletes, and phone calls with each other during the campus shutdown amid the current coronavirus pandemic.
On Wednesday morning, many of them found shelter from heavy rains inside Smith-Hammond-Middleton Memorial Center to box up care packages for returning 2020-21 student-athletes who were impacted by the abrupt end to classroom attendance and spring sports.
Most of the boxes included protein bars, protein shake mix, a jump rope, exercise bands and a note of encouragement from the coaches, among other items.
"We want our student-athletes to be encouraged and know that we care about them and just remember they need to focus on the task at hand, so they can be ready when we do return to action," said Stacy Danley, SC State's director of athletics. "We're in a better position than most (college athletic departments), since we don't normally generate a lot of revenue during spring sports. So, we're just planning for next season, so that whatever we are faced with, we can handle the budget and our responsibilities to our student-athletes.
"But, right now, we're just trying to focus on coming back for practice for our fall sports teams. Then we will focus on whether we will have fans in the stands or a hybrid situation, where social distancing is in place. This is an unprecedented time, since there's no handbook, no playbook, no manual for dealing with the health challenges we are faced with. Yes, we want to compete. But, we want to be healthy, safe and smart about it."
Spring sports were impacted for the Bulldogs program and all classroom attendance was moved to online learning from a distance.
Tennis coach Hardeep Judge — whose women's team won the 2019 Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference title and whose men's team lost in the 2019 MEAC final — saw the 2020 season end before either Bulldog team could get into the thick of conference play. The pandemic also kept several players from returning to their home country, forcing them to remain in dorms on the Orangeburg campus.
"I still have several players on campus, so this (care package) will mean a lot to them; They had nowhere else they could go," Judge said. "About half of my team is still here, so it's difficult for them, after our season was cut right in the middle.
"We were having a pretty solid season, but that's just part of it. It was frustrating that it happened, but our president here took some early steps that other institutions did not take. We're confident that, by next spring, things will be better and we will have our season. This is my 19th year here, and we've had some ups and downs at this university. But, we're hopeful that we've weathered the storm and things get back to normal."
Bulldog basketball coaches Murray Garvin (men's) and Audra Smith (women's) did get to coach their teams in first-round losses before the MEAC Basketball Tournament was shut down before completion in March. But, both know their student-athletes were impacted by the college semester ending online, and the general anxiety that suddenly gripped the nation.
"I just feel for the seniors, and all high school graduates, because a moment was basically taken from them," Garvin said. "This will forever connect the class of 2020. We had six seniors graduate from our team, which is outstanding.
"It (the nationwide shutdown) has given a lot of us a chance to get things done. But, at the same time, our hearts go out to those who've lost loved ones. Life comes at you fast. What we're doing today, with these care packages, we wouldn't be doing this if we weren't faced with this adversity. We want our student-athletes to be prepared, because there's going to be life after this."
Smith believes that sports will be one of the venues that bring society back into a comfort zone once health conditions improve.
"Sports is just one of those things that brings all people together, all nationalities, races and religions," Smith said. "You get excited, caught up in the moment and support your team.
"But, recently, the biggest thing we as coaches have been doing and talking about on our Zoom calls is maintaining contact with our kids. We want to keep them positive and in a good mental state, while they are away from college and away from their sport. It's hard for us as adults, but it's really hard for college kids who are kind of stuck at home with mom and dad."
Danley and his coaches are encouraged that all states are now opening back up for business. But, the question still remains, will college football usher back college life as normal as possible this fall?
"Hey, we're in the South, and obviously football is big here," Danley said. "But, at this institution, football is very instrumental to our success from a revenue-generating standpoint.
"We bring in over 52,000 people to our campus every year just for football games. So, we hope that we will be able to play this year. We think that would be just what the doctor ordered, but we have to wait and see."
Head football coach Buddy Pough was glad to box up items for his players. But, of course, he would rather know for certain they are set to return to campus for preseason workouts as usual.
"I think we're all just trying to figure out what's next," Pough said. "The unknown is what we're all dealing with now.
"You remember when you were away at college and mom sent you something. This is kind of similar to that, but we are sending it in the opposite direction, sending it toward home. If this puts a smile on their faces, gets them working out more, taking care of themselves and thinking about us, then it will have been well worth it. I'm excited about being in here, getting something together for our kids, mixing with our folks and having a good time. If anything, we want to be of some sort of comfort to our kids and their families."
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