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Rivier sports teams adjusting to practice-only athletics

NASHUA – Practice makes perfect.

The problem is, at Rivier University, that’s all their athletic teams can do this fall.

But it’s better than what happened last spring, when all the seasons were scrapped and the campus shut down due to the pandemic.

Now, there are students on campus, but because the Great Northeast Athletic Conference in late July canceled the fall season, the teams can only practice. There are no games this fall, while the biggest news on campus was the recently announced addition of men’s and women’s ice hockey beginning with the 2021-22 academic year.

Small college teams are dormant all over New England, as the GNAC was following the lead of several other conferences.

What’s it like, no games but just practice?

“I think it’s like the bizarro world,” longtime Rivier athletics director Joanne Merrill said. “But you know something,our students were so happy to be back. That’s been inspirational for all of us and all the coaches. They’re so happy to be back and doing something.

“The teams we have going for the first five weeks are doing some kind of practice.”

The school is full instruction on campus, which makes it a little more frustrating that the teams can’t play games. Everyone was tested initially, and random tests are done. The teams are in five-week practice mode, including spring sports.

“Once basketball, men’s volleyball etc. moves inside, which is the end of October, then they have to be tested once a week,” Merrill said, adding it’s an NCAA recommendation.

“Right now, we’re doing everything outside. Even our women’s volleyball (team) has been practicing outside. Outside is better than inside.”

Volleyball, though, was scheduled to move inside this past week.

The whole key is to keep things upbeat, Merrill said.

“Just mental health wise, it’s been good for them,” Merrill said. “It sounds corny, but we tell them that you can choose your attitidude every day. Think of something good that happened to you, use gratitude. It sounds like a cliché, but you can choose the attitude you have. We’re all in the same boat.”

Merrill said the school will try to have intersquad scrimmages, with announcing, etc. toward the end of the fall. Some schools, like Plymouth State, are creating makeshift non-conference schedules for a couple of games with some other schools. But Merrill said she was unable to go that route.

“Honestly I didn’t try it,” Merrill said. “There are just too many moving parts. Transportation companies are saying they’re only having 25 percent (capacity on a bus). Which I don’t understand, if the entire team’s together, why not put them all on a bus.

“Deep down, I knew there were too many moving parts you can’t control. Some states, like Vermont – if a team leaves the state to play somewhere else, they’d have to quarantine for 14 days. If we tried to play Norwich, they would make our whole team quarantine for 14 days. Rhode Island became a hot spot, then they’re not.

“Referees, what do you do with officials? The poor referees, they’re older, there aren’t a lot of young referees. There was a magical wish, that maybe we could play Colby Sawyer or New England College. There were just too many moving parts.”

Yet a couple of times this

fall, Rivier’s Joanee Merrill Field has been the site of a high school game or practice. That certinly can make the Raider athletes jealous, as high schools, with a few pandemic-related interruptions, are playing games this fall in a variety of sports after nothing last spring.

“I haven’t heard that kind of thing,” Merrill said. “But our teams are practicing with masks on, inside and out. I know volleyball is (with high schools), but their outdoor sports aren’t.

“It’s a challenge. They’re (the players) are great following what we need to do. But you run around outside and inside with the mask on all the time.

“We’ve got some outside right now playing two-on-two beach volleyball and they all have masks. I know in Massachusetts they have to have masks on all the time.”

•••

The question is, what about the winter? For Rivier, that would mean men’s and women’s basketball. The GNAC school presidents met recently, but no decision was made.

“I want to be optimistic,” Merrill said. “Every single one is optimistic about wanting to play in the winter, but haven’t made any decision yet.”

And the NESCAC conference last week announced there would be no winter season for its conference.

“Sometimes when that happens,” Merrill said, “other schools follow that lead.”

She said that a decision would likely need to be made in November. Usually, basketball seasons begin then, by the middle of the month in Division III. But a lot of schools have their students going home to end the first semester at Thanksgiving.

The uncertainty can be a factor in how unsettling things are.

“I think it’s a lot,” Raiders men’s hoop coach Lance Bisson said. “But I think we’ve gotten over that initially, talking to the guys about what it’s going to be like.

“As a coach, I’m looking at it as a lot of opportunity. A lot of individual work, a lot of fundamental stuff that we went back to. So I’m super excited about that. A lot of weight room work. I see opportunity.”

New women’s basketball coach Deanna Purcell, a former Raider standout, said it’s been a little difficult getting a new coaching staff assimilated “during a pandemic, but our girls are resilient, they’re working hard. I’m glad we have the opportunity to at least be together as a team.”

“We’re hopeful,” Merrill said. “I’m ever hopeful we’re going to do it. If anything, it will be a reduced schedule, I know that. The GNAC presidents are starting to talk about it starting the winter season at the end of January.”

And, Merrill said, the NCAA has moved Divison III championships back one week to late February or early March.

“We’re just going to hit the ground running, since we’re under so many restrictions and not able to play games yet,” Purcell said, “but we’re looking forward to the time we can.”

Of course, spring seasons would normally be underway by mid February, too. And last year there was no spring for the Raiders or any other college teams after the second week in March.

“I’m hopeful, but I’m also a realist,” Merrill said. “I hope the spring is going to happen. For us, our spring is mostly outside (baseball, softball, men’s and women’s lacrosse). I’m hopeful for that because those kids lost a year (last spring.)”

Merrill said the fall athletes will, like the spring, be given an extra year of eligibility. But there is a chance that fall teams could play games in the spring, too.

“People can play in the spring,” Merrill said. “If we can play in the spring, for that semester, we’ll give everybody (including fall teams) a chance to play a schedule. If you play fewer than half of the maximum games, it won’t count as a season of eligibility. I think what’s going to happen is they’ll just say the whole season doesn’t count as a season of eligibiltiy for anybody.”

Fall teams right now at Rivier are having on field practices three times a week, but they can also do strength and conditioning on other days.

“Most of our teams are going four or five days a week,” she said. “You have 114 days for team activity and you can spread it out any way you want.

“So if we do play in the spring, we’re trying to save every team day so they can do competition. Our hope is that if we could do anything, soccer, field hockey, women’s volleyball, could play a reduced schedule.”

The coaches, meanwhile, need to find ways to keep the players engaged. The first two weeks of practices are supposed to be what Merrill called “a climatization period” in which there is no contact, social distancing is practiced, one wears a mask, no equipment is shared, and practices only last an hour.

“It’s basically conditioning,” she said. “As a coach, you have to come at it with a whole new plan for what you’re doing.”

“We’re coming up with different exercises that are still moderate,” Raider men’s soccer coach Hayden Barbosa said. “They’re handling it well. That’s the mantra going in – to keep things positive.”

As Merrill said, it’s better than going dark like the Raiders had to do last spring.

“It does,” she said. “There are several schools that aren’t in person at all. They’re totally online. No one on campus at all. So I feel so lucky, and so far our students have been, behavior wise, great. They wear masks, they keep them on in practice, they keep them on in the weight room. And so do we (athletic staff).”

Merrill is on the side of taking every precaution possible. She shakes her head when she sees college football being played and even the New England Patriots.

Meanwhile, did the hockey announcement inject some optimism and enthusiasm into the school’s athletic community?

“I think so,” Merrill said. “But you know what, sometimes I think athletes, they have their own sport. So I’m hoping that it will. I think it totally can add to campus life, another thing to do. I hope it will increase the number of men we have on campus.

“But right now, I think everybody is so focused on keeping their own teams going.”

What about recruiting? It’s been impacted, Merrill said, as potential freshmen may be waiting a year after high school to begin college, hoping the pandemic settles down by then.

“The whole spring and summer was really different,” she said. “So much stuff wasn’t going on until either the middle of summer or the end of summer.

“We had some first-year students who opted to take a delay for a semester, which I totally understand. So ultimately it does (impact recruiting). It does for everybody. I think that if my daughter were over 18, I’d tell her to wait a year, too.”

Merrill said recruits are allowed to go on campus, “but even that is strange. They can’t go into the residence halls, they can’t stay overnight. They can go into the dining hall for a meal because the way it’s set up is socially distant. We can set up a small meeting with players from the team. But again, a shortened amount of time, socially distanced time, but maybe only five people. It’s a challenge.”

Merrill said it’s almost feast or famine. At one end, there are the high school student athletes who as she said will take a year off. Then there are the others that want their plans made early.

“We’re finding – and it’s not just true for only Rivier – that a lot of high school seniors want to make the decision really fast,” she said. “It’s almost like there’s this uncertainty in their lives, they want to make a decision. They want to decide where they’re going to go to school, like that settles something for them.

“We’re just seeing that more. And a lot of times we don’t see that. It can change, but it’s something stable, that they chose, and it’s settled.”

As if anything can be settled for college athletics during this strange time.

“When we went over all the protocols for the teams,” Merrill said, “we told them, ‘You’re not getting ready for games. So what are you getting ready for?

“And somebody yells, ‘We’re getting ready for life.'”

Life as Rivier University student-athletes have never known it before.

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