The Walkup Skydome is quieter than normal, the weight room is closed, classes are online and Northern Arizona football is doing about as much as it can to communicate with players in the wake of the cancellations in response to the spread of the coronavirus.
In normal circumstances the Lumberjacks football team would roughly be in week two or three of spring practices, giving spectators an early glimpse at what the team is working with come summer and fall.
Now, the team is one of seven in the Big Sky that didn’t get even one spring practice, according to a survey of Big Sky coaches done by Frank Gogola of the Missoulian.
The coronavirus pandemic has halted nearly all sports operations around the world. The state of Arizona has issued stay-at-home directives to help mitigate the spread, forcing second-year Lumberjacks head coach Chris Ball and his staff to get creative in reaching their athletes.
Even though Ball said the team was coming off a strong winter workout session, in which he said the squad was “a totally different looking team,” the coach said his players don’t need to worry about things out of their control.
“I always talk to my team about ‘red light and green light,’” Ball said in a phone interview Friday morning. “Green light are things you can control and red light are things you can’t control. We couldn’t control this, so why worry about it. We figure we got to make the best out of the situation.”
Ball stressed communication as the top priority, making sure the players are focused on the team meetings and individual classes -- which are 100% online for the remainder of the academic year.
Most of the athletes have either gone home or are in their own off-campus residences in town, with some still in campus housing, according to Ball. With the team spread out, Ball and his staff have found some workarounds to stay connected and in touch with players.
With no weight room, the team’s strength and conditioning staff, headed by head strength coach Sam Lackey, gave athletes body weight and conditioning workouts to do on their own time.
With the lack of in-person tutoring, Ball and his staff had to work with academic tutors to get athletes who are struggling academically the help they needed via scheduled Zoom meetings.
The Big Sky put a stoppage to all in-person practices and team workouts through May 15. What were usually routine spring responsibilities for the football staff are now changed in the unique athletics landscape.
The trick, Ball said, is to make a schedule and to stick with it. The coaching staff is in near-constant communication with athletes, and meetings daily to keep everyone on the same page.
“If you create a schedule, it keeps people busy,” Ball said. “We get our players up in the morning -- which is big to me to get them up and going because it is easy to slack off. … So we created the schedule and we stick to it every day, and so far it’s been going pretty decent.”
The NCAA recently extended the recruiting “dead” period through the end of May. It isn’t “dead” so to say, as players are able to contact coaches directly over the phone or other forms of communication, coaches just can’t initiate and in-person activities are prohibited.
So, high school athletes are still getting offers and Northern Arizona is still offering athletes and devoting time to recruiting as it normally would. Ball said the coaching staff dedicates about three hours per day to recruiting, whether that be communication or evaluating athletes.
There is a challenge in not seeing the athletes in person, however.
“The only thing it hurts, we were getting around the state for the past year and got a pretty good idea on some kids and what they look like on the hoof,” Ball said. “ … You can see their talent but it is hard to see the size.”
Ball has emphasized adding more size and physicality since the end of the 2019 season. With that goal and want in mind, Ball said it can be hard to judge the actual size of a player without meeting them in person.
There are still unknowns about if or when the football season will start on time, or how much practice teams will get before games begin. As of now, Ball said, the training and coaching staff is making sure players get the rehab they need and are preparing to do whatever is needed when the time comes.
Ball praised the work of the training staff in talking and making sure players are rehabbing. He added that although he would love to see players on the field to judge their health, he is pleased with what the staff is doing considering the circumstances.
As for the start of the season, there are no clear answers due to the fluid and ever-changing landscape.
“It might be just, ‘Hey, show up August 4 and you got 25 practices to get ready,’” Ball said. “Who knows what is going to happen?”
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