Uncertainties abound as Pac-12 aims for September 26 start of volleyball season

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Pac-12 volleyball 8/3/2020-Beth Launiere
Most observers think that Beth Launiere, entering her 31st season in Salt Lake City, has her best Utah team yet/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

The Pac-12 has a plan.

“We’re chomping at the bit to get back in the gym,” said Utah coach Beth Launiere, ready to start her 31st year at the school.

But that plan allows for conference-only matches starting September 26.

“I’m glad that we’re trying to push it forward,” said 29th-year Arizona coach Dave Rubio, who was in favor of a spring season but has changed his mind. 

“My hope is that we can mitigate all the things that we have to from a safety standpoint in order to pull this off.”

And pull off what? 

A shortened season? One without an NCAA Tournament as the Power Five and NCAA butt heads and Pac-12 athletes are on the verge of a revolution?

“Nobody wants an experience of less than what we’ve grown into, in terms of 30 matches and a full NCAA Tournament,” sixth-year Washington coach Keegan Cook said. “It’s a pretty amazing thing, looking back on it.”

Cook laughed but then paused and sighed.

“The question I find myself asking is what would I be willing to accept to keep volleyball going? There’s a deep history of people making tremendous sacrifices to grow the game. And they weren’t having the experiences that we had in the last 10, 20 years. 

“And now is it our time to be prepared to accept an experience that’s less than what we’re used to in order to keep the game going and keep collegiate sports going and keep women’s sports going? Is this our moment to do whatever is necessary? 

“Would you play 20 matches so we can have college volleyball for the next 30 or 50 years? Would you play 10 matches? Would you not have an NCAA championship if it ensured that the model kept going?”

Welcome to NCAA women’s volleyball — hopefully — in 2020.

The Pac-12, in the form of Stanford, has won three of the last four NCAA Tournaments.

“It seems like we want to make a run at it and I’m curious to see how it works,” Stanford coach Kevin Hambly said. “We’re not allowed to be inside yet for training, so we’re setting up outdoor sports courts at our tennis facility and training under the lights …

“The weird thing is we’re operating out of hope, which is never a good plan. I think we’re all hoping that things are going to settle down and hoping the NCAA keeps the championship going and hoping that no one gets sick and we’re all hoping that we can travel and we don’t have any major outbreaks.

“There’s just a lot of hope, which doesn’t typically bode well. But what are you going to do about it? We’re just going to be optimistic and control what we can and take each day as we can and keep the athletes healthy. That’s it. Just going day by day and focusing on what I can control.”

The situation seems to change daily and the NCAA may have an announcement on Tuesday, but that not withstanding, the Pac-12 is moving forward.

“I think the timelines they gave us are very reasonable,” Launiere said.  “As I tell our team, time is our friend. While it’s frustrating to keep getting things pushed back, there’s a lot that can happen between now and when our first match is supposed to be. And hopefully for the better.”

Coaches don’t become coaches to sit around and not see and coach their players. 

“I’m excited to get in and just do volleyball,” Launiere continued. “The NCAA kept us away from our players and it’s time for us to get back with them. It’s time for us to get in the gym and do the game that we love and teach and get better. Ultimately whatever’s gonna happen is gonna happen.”

The Pac-12 announced on Friday that not only would its football teams play a 10-game, conference-only schedule, “ … men’s & women’s soccer, women’s volleyball, and men’s & women’s cross country, with competition to start no earlier than the weekend of September 26. The first permissible date of practice for these Conference-sponsored sports will be August 15. In all cases the Conference-only schedules to be developed will be designed to support health and safety, and maximize flexibility.”

Arizona coach Dave Rubio: “My hope is that we can mitigate all the things that we have to from a safety standpoint in order to pull this off.”/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

“They needed to put something on the books,” Rubio said. “That was important so we can all get started. And I think the tone of it was right, which is we’re not sure we can get this done. We’re gonna plan on getting it done, but we’re going to follow the protocols of local governments and municipalities.” 

Cook agreed.

“The No. 1 thing is still safety, and I have to remind myself of that, the safety of our student-athletes and our coaches, referees, and everyone involved in an athletic event,” Cook said. “It’s something that I have to keep in my perspective as the central focal point. That’s the first thing. The second thing is if it can be done safely, there is tremendous value in sports, in women’s sports, in collegiate sports, and we’ve dedicated our lives to that.”

Most agree the Pac-12 and its large schools can provide a safe environment for its sports teams. 

“Keeping them safe is part of being competitive,” Launiere said.

Fourth-year Oregon coach Matt Ulmer: “First and foremost we want to keep our student-athletes. And our student-athletes want to play. We’re trying to make those things happen. If it’s not something we can do then we won’t do it. We’re really fortunate to be at a school that has an amazing administration and we have the resources to do proper testing and follow the protocols.

“So if we can have a healthy experience for the student-athletes, Oregon and the Pac-12 are going to make it happen.”

Indeed.

“The Power Five all want us to have a fall because we can afford the testing,” said Hambly, who is entering his fourth season at Stanford after leaving Illinois. “It’s all about dollars.”

Not all situations, however, are equal.

“From being on the AVCA calls, and just hearing all the different conferences and what they’re going through, Oregon and the Pac-12 we have one viewpoint but what everybody else is going through is just so much bigger,” Ulmer said.

And for him it strikes home. His mother, Leanne, is the volleyball coach at Carthage, an NCAA Division III school in Wisconsin. DIII, like nine of the 32 Division I conferences, is putting off sports until the spring.

“What does it cost,” Matt Ulmer mused, “350, 400 grand to test properly following the guidelines? Something like that. You have to have that kind of money to even think about it.”

But back to the Pac-12, which by and large can afford it and has said it will honor the scholarships of any athletes who don’t want to play.

California, especially in Los Angeles, and Arizona have seen huge spikes in coronavirus cases since June.

“It will be interesting to see what happens when UCLA and USC can get their student-athletes in,” Rubio said. “And we don’t have our kids in yet.”

And the question begs, which kids? 

We should not be surprised if athletes the nation over — particularly seniors — decide to redshirt this season. Is it worth playing a shortened season? Is it safe? How many matches will determine the loss of a season, making it too late to redshirt?

“The question now is redshirting,” Rubio said. “If the season is shortened, what will we do with the redshirt component of it? And the financial component that goes with it.”

The Pac-12, as you would expect, is loaded with outstanding seniors. 

While Arizona only has one, for example, Utah has two and both are All-Americans in Kenzie Koerber and Dani Drews. 

Among the very best, going by school in alphabetical order, are Arizona State’s Andrea Mitrovic; Cal’s Mima Mirkovic and Preslie Anderson; Colorado’s Leah Clayton, a graduate transfer; Oregon’s Taylor Borup, a fifth-year player who transferred; Oregon State’s Maddie Goings; Stanford’s Meghan McClure and Kate Formico; UCLA’s Mac May; USC’s Brooke Botkin; Washington’s Samantha Drechsel and Lauren Sanders; and Washington State’s Penny Tusa. 

“I don’t think there’s a coach in the country who wants their seniors to have a season that gets cut short or you lose it or don’t have a national championship,” Launiere said. “Nobody wants that for their seniors.”

Utah is an interesting case. Launiere might be sitting on the best team she’s had. 

“Yeah. That’s what everyone keeps telling us,” she said. “We’re just taking it day by day.”

The Utes lost in the NCAA Tournament’s third-round at Stanford last season 25-22, 14-25, 10-25, 25-12, 15-11. Utah trailed 12-11 in the fifth before the Cardinal pulled away.

“I feel really bad for Beth,” Rubio said. “She has the best team she’s ever had. She has a final-four level team. She should have been in the final four last year. Right? If she was in a different (NCAA tourney) pod other than with Stanford she probably would have been in the final four. So here she returns almost every single player and we have the pandemic.”

Not only is the Pac-12 regarded as one of the top two conferences in the sports along with the Big Ten, it has a different travel situation than the other Power Five conferences. Most teams in the SEC, for example, charter. You can drive to most of the Big Ten matches, and the ACC is going to play in three pods of five (we have an ACC story coming Tuesday) where the teams — mostly — are within driving distance. As an aside, the Big 12 has yet to announce anything.

But in the Pac-12, while some schools are relatively near each other — UCLA and USC, Cal and Stanford, Arizona and Arizona State — the league is really spread out. Teams in the Pac-12 fly commercially. 

And while the league has teams all over the West, there are plenty of non-conference Division I teams each could play, but that’s been ruled out. Utah, for example, can’t play BYU, Utah State, or Weber State. Colorado can’t face Colorado State. Cal and Stanford have plenty of potential opponents in the Bay area.

So the Pac-12 is moving forward. Soon they’ll start practice with an eye on playing in late September.

“If I knew we could have a full season in the spring, that definitely would be my preference,” Launiere said. “I’m not convinced that they’re going to be able to move our season to the spring. I’m not convinced that the NCAA is going to be able to run that many championships in the spring.”

Hambly: “The NCAA doesn’t have the bandwidth to run 90 championships in the spring in four months.”

With nine conferences — at the least — not participating, whatever the fall brings, especially in the form of a championship, will certainly be different.

“The thing about the spring is you don’t know if it’s going to be any better or worse,” Oregon’s Ulmer said. “So I think the real question you have to ask yourself is do you want to have it this fall or no season at all.”

And no one knows the answer to any of it.

“No one’s jumping in full steam ahead. It’s ridiculously hard,” Launiere said. “I feel for the players. The coaches feel the same way and have the trepidation and concerns. 

“But I know Utah and every Pac-12 school is working hard on their protocol system and I do feel like we’ve created the best situation we possibly can and I feel great about that.”

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