This basketball season has been unlike any before it. After March cancellations due to COVID-19, the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference announced a modified schedule in November. In this season, Winona State University basketball teams are struggling to compete, facing frequent COVID cancellations.
The Winona State University women’s team has played four of eight scheduled contests, falling to 0-4 after a 81-79 loss against Augustana University Saturday 26th, before cancellation of Sunday’s game due to COVID. Winona State men’s basketball beat Augustana Saturday 87-82 and lost a rematch Sunday 63-73 to a 3-2 record, playing five of eight games so far.
Both Winona State basketball teams faced University of Minnesota-Duluth Jan. 2 before a positive COVID test within the Winona program ended the series. The Warriors resumed last season’s schedule against the Duluth Bulldogs, with the men’s matchup in Duluth’s Romano Gymnasium and the women facing off in Winona State’s McCown Gymnasium.
The Bulldogs handily beat both Warriors teams. Men’s basketball lost 59-81, while the women’s team fell 47-68.
Winona State women’s basketball coach Scott Ballard said the team faced an old opponent with a new playstyle.
“We’re basically running a new offense and a new defense from last year and It just takes time and reps to become consistent, Ballard said. “When you play a team the quality of Duluth, they will expose your inefficiencies or inconsistencies.
After the initial matchup, a positive test in the Winona sidelined both teams before their rematch, for the following two weeks, this meant cancelling contests against Southwest Minnesota State University and the men’s game against the University of Sioux Falls.
Precautions for this season included back to back games against a single opponent per week and mandatory cancellations and quarantines, following NCAA Sports Science Institute guidelines for COVID safety. The Warriors compete in McCown Gymnasium with only players and media present.
Second-year point guard Bill Flowers described the new environment COVID brings to the court.
“Being in silence, it’s very weird.” Flowers said. “It’s like actually playing a five on five in, like, an empty gym.”
Athletes also face stringent COVID restrictions off the court.
Ballard said those restrictions include COVID testing three times a week in addition to testing on game day.
Flowers said the whole team faces restrictions beyond cancellation of games.
“If you did not test positive, we are allowed to have the coaches setup an individual workout,” Flowers said. “But each player has to be at their own separate basket, like at least 20 feet away,”
Ballard said quarantining challenges the whole team in unique ways.
“Our goal is to get better every week.” Ballard said. “Well, how difficult is it to get better every week when you have to stop and pause for two weeks and then restart again? You have to backtrack and review and relearn some things.”
Ballard described the frustration players face against the invisible opponent of COVID, including the toll on their mental health.
“The mental health and mindset of our players going through this is my biggest concern because even those who have had a positive test at sometime in the last six weeks, none of them had symptoms,” Ballard said. “Everybody feels great. They feel normal. They just have a test that says positive on it. It’s really difficult for athletes and competitors to handle.”
Flowers said the experience has brought the team together.
“It changed my opinion on how close a group of teammates and a group of players should be,” Flowers said.
Flowers also said this has changed his perspective on the season.
“We’re not guaranteed to have a season. We’re not guaranteed to even play basketball or make it to the championship or anything,” Flowers said. “But one thing is guaranteed: we’ll have one another’s backs and be together and just make the most [of this] opportunity.”