SLU athletes stay sharp with intrasquad competition
The cancellation of NCAA spring sports came at a particularly tricky time for coach Jon Bell’s teams at St. Louis University.
Having just completed their indoor season, track and field athletes faced the possibility of a full year on the sideline before their next meet.
When athletes returned to campus in August, they had missed the entire spring outdoor schedule. Distance runners had lost the fall cross country season. Everyone was looking at a possible February 2021 return to action.
Unwilling to wait for the decision makers, Bell decided to fill the gap with a half dozen intrasquad meets, an approach many coaches at SLU have adopted to give athletes an outlet for competition this fall.
“When the NCAA made that decision in March, I kind of realized we needed something in the fall,” Bell said. “We’ve jumped head first into some form of competition. The athletes wanted to do it, and lo and behold, we’ve had fantastic results.”
After having half of its spring season wiped out, the softball team is playing games to make up for a fall schedule that was lost. The field hockey team, which had its season moved from the fall to spring, has moved into an intrasquad schedule. The men’s soccer team plays every Friday night at a time when it should be in the thick of its season.
Coaches have been forced to get creative or risk having players get stale after months of quarantine. Three months of nothing but practice in the fall was not appealing to most, especially the players.
“We’re still working on softball skills, but to see them compete and add that spark and life — it was incredible,” softball coach Christy Connoyer said. “It’s just huge what it does for competitiveness. We try to make practices competitive, but when you actually pit a pitcher against a hitter, you see the communication rise, the leadership step up and more focus and intensity.”
Connoyer has just enough players to be able to split into two teams. She made sure there was a pitcher and a catcher on each team and then let captains draft the remaining players.
Field hockey coach Zoe Adkins does not have enough players for two full teams. She has held scrimmages anyway. Adkins is in her first season at SLU, so she has a lot of evaluating to do before the Billikens play sometime in the spring.
“We could do skills work for many months, but we do this to keep them engaged,” she said. “They’re Division I athletes for a reason, and competition is something they thrive on. Also, for development of game play, the best way is in a competition format.”
SLU athletes did some training in the spring via video conferencing after sports shut down in March. However, whereas the men’s basketball players returned in mid-June and the women’s basketball team in July, all others did not get back on campus until school started in mid-August.
Organized workouts started at least a week later. And students will be on campus only through the end of November, creating a longer-than-usual winter break without practice.
Bell said he never has staged meets in the fall and wasn’t sure what to expect. He limited athletes to one event per meet at first so as not to push them too hard.
Performances have been better than he expected. Many marks have been good enough to place among the top eight at the Atlantic 10 meet, he said, and one sprinter ran what would have been a school-record time in the 100 meters.
“My thought was to get them in a routine of warming up for events, putting on a jersey and competing,” Bell said. “I knew from training they were not going to be as fit or as fast as we’d like them, but it was more to get into that routine. We’re clearly getting that, and the icing is seeing how hard they worked over the spring in quarantine and into the summer.”
When seasons do resume, the schedules will be more compact in most cases. For instance, the A-10 has reduced the conference schedule by 25% in some sports and will limit the number of teams that qualify for the postseason tournament.
So, every bit of game competition helps.
Connoyer, whose team had 38 games canceled in the spring, did what she could to make the games realistic. Players were in uniform, an assistant coach served as umpire, the scoreboard was used and walk-up music was played.
“Typically in the fall we play eight games,” she said. “If we can compete and do this a little longer, we’re going to get out and do it.”