MEC Takes Long, But Successful Journey Back to Competition
The Mountain East Conference successfully completed its second men’s and women’s basketball tournaments at Wheeling’s WesBanco Arena last March. Little did conference officials know what was coming in mere days after that.
Less than a week later, the COVID-19 pandemic put the entire sporting world on pause. Not only did the winter college postseason end, the MEC’s spring season was canceled as well.
Yet on Jan. 7, the Mountain East returned to play after months of planning, research and organizing to make sure student athletes could safely and properly compete for a championship.
On Sunday, when the final buzzer sounds for that afternoon’s men’s title game, the conference will have made that a reality.
“We faced a lot of challenges getting back to where we could compete again,”MEC Commissioner Reid Amos said. “Literally the sports world stopped spinning on its axis.
“It took a while for us before we started seeing any sports coming back at all,” he continued. “Initially, we saw professional sports come back in true bubbles. Then we saw college sports come back and, no surprise, you saw the largest universities with the most resources coming back first.
Then, little by little, others eventually figured out how they could return to sports in appropriately safe fashion.”
The adversity that comes with creating a safe playing environment already was there, but Amos said that didn’t stop more adversity from springing up..
“Pandemics are ever-changing,” Amos said. “You’re trying to make your way through to the point where the pandemic is behind you. Until then, you try and figure out how to operate within the pandemic if that’s even possible.
“The NCAA guidelines were ever-changing. Just as we would get to a point where we were getting closer to being able to compete again, the guidelines would change because public health conditions were changing.”
A ray of light poked through last fall, Amos said. College sports started figuring out where their goalposts were, and the NCAA came up with appropriate testing guidelines for different sports. Yet, even with those guidelines, the problem of finding affordable tests remained.
Major universities could afford the $85 PCR tests, but small colleges didn’t have the resources for them. And the less expensive lab tests were reserved for the federal government.
“Finally, we reached a point where those supplies began to flow to state governments, those supplies began to be available commercially,” Amos said.
Meanwhile, the MEC’s West Virginia-based members were able to procure more affordable tests, knowing that athletics are a crucial piece to the missions of their institutions.
With all that support, the conference was able to set a return date And on Jan. 7, the condensed basketball season began.
“We created conference protocols, all of which operated within the umbrella of the NCAA guidelines,” Amos said. “Our programs have done really well in making the commitment that is required to consistently test negative so they can have teams continue to compete.”
That allowed both men’s and women’s programs to play the overwhelming majority of their games. MEC women’s teams were able to play 97% (92 of 96) of their scheduled games, while the men played 94% (90 of 96) of their matchups.
Also, according to Amos, based on testing that was completed on March 4, all 16 of the quarterfinal teams are prepared to compete.
“It’s a tremendous job by our folks on campus. We got tremendous support by the state of West Virginia for our West Virginia institutions,” Amos said. “Our out-of-state institutions have received governmental support. They have the supplies they need. We wanted to provide our student athletes the opportunity to play in an appropriately safe fashion and I think we’re proving that’s exactly what’s occurring.”
Amos also serves as the MEC’s representative of the COVID-19 advisory panel. Every league has a representative to get biweekly updates from the NCAA.
According to Amos, NCAA Chief Medical Officer Dr. Brian Hainline stated in meetings that basketball likely would be the most difficult sport to keep on track with it being an indoor sport. The only players that aren’t allowed to wear masks are the five on each team that are on the court.
As successful as the MEC’s basketball seasons were, Amos is optimistic about the spring.
“If you would have told me on Jan. 7 that we would play that percentage of games, I probably would have doubted that prediction,” Amos said. “I felt we would have a high level of success. I didn’t think it would be that high. And that’s a credit to our directors of athletics and the athletic trainers who have worked tirelessly on our campuses.
“And to the head coaches who we told when we met with every group to lay out what our conference protocols would be … The NCAA’s guidelines were 40 pages worth of information that isn’t as consumable as the eight pages that we put together working with the United States Council for Athletes Health which has been our third party.
“They’re out of Dublin, Ohio,” he continued, “and they’ve done a terrific job of supporting us and helping us confirm our plans and our strategy so we can let our student athlete play.”
Amos and the MEC now are nearing some uncharted waters as the spring draws near. With the spring season slated to go on as originally scheduled, there will also be a condensed fall season going on at the same time.
“It certainly wasn’t the easy route for us to take to suggest we’d delay all fall sports to the spring, Amos said. “But our focus has been to give all our student-athletes the opportunity to play and all of them to compete for a MEC championship during this academic year. Some neighboring conferences canceled the fall sports and did not reschedule for the spring. Some neighboring conferences are not playing winter sports and we’ve successfully done so.”
Many MEC schools will have to do plenty of juggling. With some athletic programs, multiple sports share the same playing fields. While that will pose a problem, the MEC is committed to providing their student athletes with a chance to play the sport they were recruited to play.
“Our folks are absolutely focused on providing our student athletes in all 23 sports with the opportunity to compete and compete for a championship this spring,” he said. “There won’t be an NCAA opportunity for the fall sports, but there’s going to be a chance for them to raise a MEC championship trophy. We know that’s very meaningful for the student athletes. It gives them a chance to compete for a title this year.”