West Chester coach Damien Blair (above) and his Rams are waiting on the PSAC's decision to find out if they'll have a season. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Mitchell Gladstone (@mpgladstone13)
When the Borough of West Chester announced a state of emergency Oct. 2, the writing on the wall began to come into view.
With West Chester University already fully remote for the fall semester, Golden Rams head coach Damien Blair had a feeling it was only a matter of time until his school announced those arrangements would extend into the spring semester.
Five days later, WCU made that news official, adding that all athletics would be canceled for the remainder of the academic year.
“If you pay attention to what’s going around you, numbers are going up and nothing is really changed,” Blair told CoBL by phone earlier this week, mentioning an Oct 2 report by the borough that showed that 88 out of 202 August cases (43.6%) and 299 of 437 September cases (68.4%) were diagnosed in people 18-22 years old.
“So when you hear numbers like that...your hunch is that there’s a strong possibility you’re going to wind up going remote again.”
It was somewhat of a shock to those on the outside — West Chester was the first area college, at any level, to announce a shutdown of sports.
Except, it didn’t last long. Within 48 hours, the university put out another statement, explaining that it was “reconsidering” its decision on athletics “at the urging of Council of Trustees Chairperson [State] Senator [Tommy] Tomlinson.”
So once again, Blair’s team was in limbo. Although West Chester is in the process of working through the necessary protocols to bring its teams back onto campus for the spring semester, its plans may be foiled come Nov. 17. That’s when the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) presidents will meet and vote on a final decision for athletics through the end of the 2020-21 academic calendar.
Regardless of the conference’s decision, the NCAA has already ensured that every Division II winter-sport student-athlete will be granted an additional season of eligibility. That announcement from Tuesday follows the same decision for Division I programs, and all Division III student-athletes got the same news Wednesday afternoon.
The extra season will be a boon to not just West Chester but all 18 programs in the PSAC including East Stroudsburg and Kutztown, both of which boast plenty of area prospects; most of the PSAC East division includes some type of Philly representation. The other D-II league with a heavy local presence, the Central Athletic Collegiate Conference (CACC) –– which includes Jefferson, Chestnut Hill, Holy Family, USciences, and more –– is also weighing whether to move forward, as one of its members, Post University (Conn.), cancelled its season earlier this week.
But it will only come into play if the league chooses to go forward, and certainly, health factors will be at the forefront of the discussions among the school presidents. Each school will need to abide by all protocols and guidelines handed down from the NCAA — the most notable guideline is that basketball teams will need to test three times per week, a cost that could prove prohibitive for some schools.
Blair said, however, that the Golden Rams are committed to following whatever guidance is set.
That’s not to mention the re-opening of campuses and dorms as well as the logistical concerns of squeezing two seasons’ worth of sports into a smaller time frame.
“There are a million different factors that go into making this decision and it would be the first time ever that you’d have every single sport participating in the spring,” Blair said. “Is that, in and of itself, feasible? The number of facilities that we have and staffing, those are issues that need to be addressed and looked at very carefully.”
But when it comes to his team and doing his job successfully, the 13th-year coach believes things will ultimately go smoothly — assuming they do go at all — even in a COVID world.
“You give me the rules and the parameters and I’m going to do my best to work within them so that the kids have a great experience,” Blair said. “There are going to be a lot of things that are going to be challenging, but this is not something where there’s a playbook already written up. You’ve got to write the playbook as you go.”
When it comes to basketball, the Golden Rams are in a decent spot. Although they lose their two leading scorers from last year, they will return three of their top six scorers — namely junior forward Josh Samec, a Hazleton Area product who started all 30 games for a team that finished 20-10 and 13-9 in league play, good for third place.
But with everyone remote this semester, West Chester hasn’t been able to do any small-group workouts, something that pretty much every other team in the conference has at least had the opportunity to conduct.
Fortunately, the Golden Rams do have plenty of local products returning — Downingtown East’s Malik Slay, Lower Merion’s Julian Hairston, Neumann-Goretti’s Marcus Littles, Episcopal Academy’s Matt Dade and Cheltenham’s Tim Myarick — and Blair said they’ve been able to get in some workouts and pickup games together away from campus.
That’s not to mention the trio of local freshmen — Bishop McDevitt alums Jamil Manigo and Robert Smith as well as West Chester East’s Tym Richardson — and transfer Lapri McCray-Pace, a Conwell-Egan product.
Still, with his team unable to be together in person, Blair has tried to express a trio of priorities in their virtual meetings.
“One, mentally, are we on good footing? During this time, there’s a lot going on — people are dealing with a lot of anxiety, a lot of frustration, a lot of anger, so we’ve got to make sure our attitudes and our heads are in the right spot,” Blair said. “Number two, we’ve got to make sure we’re doing what we have to in the classroom. Academically, we have to stay on top of our work, and if these guys aren’t playing because they’re not doing what they’re supposed to academically, then that just adds fuel to the fire, so that’s something we’ve got to do.
“And then third, we’ve got to continue to get better. Continue to work on your skills, continue to try to get stronger, continue to try to get faster so when it’s time for us to get back in action, we’re ready to go.”
Ultimately, though, if the Golden Rams are going to turn in a campaign like their most recent one — assuming they take to the floor at all — it’s going to fall on Blair to bring together a bunch of new pieces in a short period of time.
“We can’t be with our kids until Dec. 28,” Blair said. “We’re not making any excuses, we’re not complaining — it is what is and we’ll make the best of it. We may be a little bit behind, but they’re good enough and talented enough that they can compete at a very high level.”