Tennessee coaches address NCAA’s COVID-19 response

Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes reacts to a call during an NCAA college basketball game against Auburn, Saturday, March 7, 2020, in Knoxville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)

KNOXVILLE — On Thursday, March 12, the lives of college athletes were changed for the foreseeable future.

A day after the NBA suspended their season because of the COVID-19 outbreak after the Utah Jazz’s Rudy Gobert tested positive, the NCAA followed suit and took it a step further.

All NCAA sanctioned winter and spring sports were cancelled. There would be no March Madness. No SEC tournaments.

No baseball and softball College World Series. Nothing.

On Tuesday, March 16, Tennessee Athletic Director Phillip Fulmer and coaches at the University spoke out about the events that have transpired since last Thursday.

“Our daily lives have never been interrupted in the way we are currently experiencing, and it’s not easy and it will not get easier for some time,” Fulmer said. “But it will pass, and it will make us stronger. I am very appreciative for the leadership of our University.”

MEN’S BASKETBALL

At noon EST on March 12, the Tennessee basketball team was sitting in Bridgestone Arena in Nashville preparing to take on Alabama in the second round of the SEC Tournament.

The SEC had already announced that no fans would be allowed to attend the games, however, head coach Rick Barnes said his players were still nervous about playing due to the corona virus.

Then, just minutes before the team was set to take the floor for warm-ups, the word from the SEC came down that the tournament had been cancelled. The Volunteers immediately got on the bus and returned home, meeting briefly where Rick Barnes thanked senior Jordan Bowden for what he did for the program.

“When we got back, we had our medical staff and talk to our players about where we were at that point and time and the caution that needed to be taken,” Barnes said. “We did talk briefly as a team that we’re going through something that is unprecedented, and we have to take it seriously.

“We knew that some guys had made plans to do some things, but we tried to point out to them that they need to be careful…We did reflect some and talk about the year and thanked Jordan Bowden. We didn’t talk as much as you would think about the season because our mind was on this and how serious it is.”

While most players departed soon after that meeting, two players, Santiago Vescovi from Uruguay and Uros Plavisic from Serbia, are still in the process of trying to get home. With travel restrictions, it’s been difficult for both. Vescovi was supposed to take a direct flight from Miami to Uruguay but it was cancelled.

Tennessee finished the season with a 17-14 record, going 9-9 in the conference. The Vols season will be remembered as a roller-coaster ride, with Lamonte Turner’s season-ending injury, landing the two mid-season additions in Plavsic and Vescovi and the inconsistent play from the team. UT finished the season with a win at No.6 Kentucky before falling to Auburn at home.

“I would like for our student-athletes and other people their age understand how serious this is and how important they are that they don’t do something where they are being careless and bring something back to their parents and grandparents,” Barnes said. “But without sports, in some ways I think it’s God trying to get our attention too.”

WOMEN’S BASKETBALL

It was a whirlwind three days for Kellie Harper and the Lady Vols basketball team.

On Wednesday, March 11, the Lady Vols were practicing as they prepared to find out in less than a week if they made the NCAA Tournament and where they would be going.

The Lady Volunteers cancelled practice on Thursday and held a meeting just to talk logistics in case the NCAA Tournament was called off. On Friday, the team met for the final time to reflect on the season they had after the NCAA shut down the tournament.

“It was very abrupt,” Harper said. “It’ didn’t feel like we got a lot of closer with our season because the most important thing we were talking about was the logistics and making sure that our players understood the importance of taking care of themselves, and the gravity of this virus.”

Harper said that the majority of her team is home now, with some finishing up things before leaving campus. Lou Brown, the one international player on the team, has booked a flight back home to Australia.

With the cancellation, Tennessee finished the season with a 21-10 record in Harper’s first year as head coach. The Lady Vols wrapped tied for third in the SEC with a 10-6 record and, according to ESPN reporter Charlie Creme, were one of the last four teams in the tournament, slotted as an 11 seed.

Now, for Harper, she will focus on what recruiting she is able to do, making phone calls and staying organized and up to date. And, she’ll have to be the “creative mom” too, taking care of her son Jackson and daughter Kylie.

“We tie-died shirts yesterday,” Harper said. “We’re going to be doing a lot of in-the-house activities for the next few weeks.”

BASEBALL

Bringing a 15-2 record into SEC play, the Tennessee baseball team was feeling pretty good about where they sat as a team as they were set to head to South Carolina to play a three-game series beginning on Friday.

Baseball coach Tony Vitello was up at 6 a.m. Thursday morning, packing his bag as the Vols were set to leave that afternoon when he looked on twitter and saw guys like Charles Barkley saying that “there’s no way student-athletes are going to play after what the NBA did.”

Vitello got a sense, then, that his team’s season might be over. The message at first from the NCAA was that the College World Series was cancelled, but the SEC had only announced the suspension of spring athletics, not a cancellation.

However, on Tuesday, March 17, the SEC announced that the spring sport seasons were officially over.

“Our team was kind of built for a break with Zach Daniels being only able to DH because he was sore and Garrett Crochet and Camden Sewell not having time yet to build into things,” Vitello said. “So, you could kind of see that this was a decent thing for us if we were going to pick back up baseball… We had a great team. Where the season would have taken us, who knows.”

Vitello said that most of the Tennessee players have returned home with the exception of Liam Spence, who is from Australia. Spence’s family was in town to watch him play, but raced back to Australia and have been quarantined since their arrival. Spence, who has been injured for UT, will stay in Knoxville and rehab.

With the NCAA announcing that they will work with spring athletes about their eligibility, questions have arisen from coaches about scholarship limits. Currently, baseball has a limit of 11.7 scholarships for the entire team. Tennessee has 35 players on the team at the moment with 18 signed to come next year.

“We have to deal every year with guys leaving and guys coming in, but now it is going to be that on steroids,” Vitello said. “It’s just going to complicate the issue even more with what seniors are going to do and who all will come back.”

SOFTBALL

The Tennessee softball team was at Mcghee-Tyson Airport in Knoxville on Thursday, standing in line at the terminal to board their plane to College Station, Texas when co-head coach Karen Weekly got the phone call that the SEC had suspended play.

The Lady Vols were 14-9 when the season was cancelled, getting ready to begin their SEC slate.

“There was a lot of emotions, a lot of uncertainty and a lot of fear,” Weekly said. “The thing that I was most proud of with our student athletes was that despite their disappointment with softball, they quickly saw the bigger picture, and this was about a world health crisis.”

Weekly said that all of her players are home now with the exception of two, who should head home shortly.

With the long break, Weekly noted that they did provide their players offseason workout packets, so that they can still train. However, she said that is the least of her concerns right now.

“My bigger concern is not competition and not how much they are working out right now, it’s about if they are taking care of themselves and taking care of each other,” Weekly said. “I am making sure they are doing what they need to do to make sure this virus doesn’t spread.”

TRACK AND FIELD

It was a surreal moment for track and field coach Beth Alford-Sullivan last week, finding out that the season was cancelled while she was at the NCAA Indoor Championships with her student athletes who had qualified. The meet was supposed to start on Friday.

Alford-Sullivan and the athletes who had qualified had been in Albuquerque, N.M. since Wednesday, preparing for the meet. The team had gone over to practice on Thursday when the news came down that the championship had been shuttered.

“I think it was the right call (to cancel everything),” Alford-Sullivan said. “It was just extremely difficult for our young kids. We had sent our kids off for a short spring break and were supposed to meet today (Tuesday) to begin training for the outdoor season. I wasn’t able to even get back in time to have a meeting with my team.”

With all the information swirling, Alford-Sullivan put together a group chat to tell her athletes the news that the season had been cancelled.

Alford-Sullivan said that she has had numerous tearful phone calls and conversations with her athletes, including thrower Georgios Korakidis, who decided to return home to Greece.

Now, Alford-Sullivan wants her team to be safe and make the right choices.

And, with the Olympics still planning to go on as scheduled, she hopes she can get her athletes back soon.

“We have a handful, if not more, of young people nationally and internationally who are in the position of being on the Olympic team,” Alford-Sullivan said. “We are also hoping that when this ebbs and flows back away, we can get to training for some of them because our Olympic trials are scheduled as is.”

SWIMMING AND DIVING

Following a season that saw the women’s team win the SEC Championship, their first conference title in program history, both the men’s and women’s swimming and diving teams were gearing up for the National Championships when the news broke that the NCAA had ended the season.

With the cancellation coming out on Thursday, director of swimming and diving Matt Kredich said that he was not surprised by the news of everything being shelved. But that didn’t make it any easier.

“Emotionally, it was really really difficult,” Kredich said. “Like many people have said, we’ve never experienced anything like this. As I explained to the team when I had to officially tell them, no one has really ever gone through this without it being a reaction to a tragedy. This is a necessary and protective measure.”

It was an impressive season for both Tennessee teams.

The Lady Vols finished the year undefeated and ranked No.3 in the nation.

At the SEC Championships, the Lady Vols took home 11 medals – eight gold, two silver and one bronze. The men finished sixth in the Championships but, in the regular season, took down Florida for the first time since 2008.

The NCAA women’s championships were scheduled for March 18-22 while the men’s were scheduled for the next week, March 25-28.

“It’s really disorienting to plan an entire season to peak, and we’re day after day getting closer to realizing that this goal we have been going for is now gone,” Kredich said. “It was really unsettling. But it doesn’t take much imagination to realize that we have to do this. We don’t get many global imperatives, but this is one.”