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Pack athletes return to Reno as Nevada puts 31-player pilot program in place

Doug Knuth
Doug Knuth and the Wolf Pack are planning a return to voluntary activities this month. (Byrne Photo/Nevada athletics)

The Wolf Pack athletic department’s process in returning to competition this fall has begun with 31 athletes returning to Reno and going through a quarantine process before starting voluntary activities.

Of those 31 athletes, 20 are from the football team, six from men’s basketball and five from women’s basketball. If that pilot program is successful, the remaining athletes from those three programs will return to campus in mid-July as Nevada, and the rest of the NCAA, attempts to return to action in late August after COVID-19 caused the cancellation of the spring sport season in the middle of March.

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“Those 31 athletes are here in Reno now and they’re quarantining and self-isolating and once they go through that, we’ll go through all of our testing procedures to clear them for workouts," Wolf Pack athletic director Doug Knuth said in a Zoom press conference Wednesday afternoon. "The intention is to have things up and running by the middle of June so those 31 athletes can start doing voluntary workouts. If we do a good job – and there’s an if there – if our student-athletes and coaches and staff all do a good job and we all are able to operate under the safety protocol and Dr. (Tony) Islas and our staff are putting in and we feel confident we can do this the right way, then in the middle of July we’ll invite the remainder of those three teams.”

Islas, who is the Wolf Pack’s team physician, said starting with a small group – those 31 athletes comprise less than 10 percent of Nevada’s athletes – will help Nevada's staff test the procedures and processes it has put in place. That includes weekly COVID-19 testing, additional sanitizing of equipment, mandatory facemasks and daily symptom questionnaires and temperature taking as athletes move around campus.

“We are indeed testing, and we’re going to test continually once a week until testing in no longer part of the national picture in surveilling COVID,” Islas said. “However, the real crux of all of this really lies within our Wolf Pack family and our athletes that we all take our personal responsibility in keeping ourselves safe, keeping ourselves protected as often as possible and doing the things we need to do. First and foremost, all of our athletes coming in, wearing a mask is no longer an option. It’s mandatory. All of our athletes around the campus and throughout the city will be wearing a mask at all times unless they’re practicing or at home by themselves. Masks are part of it.

"We’re really putting in a lot of hand sanitation areas so the athletes can continually wash their hands. Walking in and out of the campus is something we always want to promote. We’re really proud of our campus and especially Legacy Hall, but unfortunately in the next upcoming months, it’s going to be an appointment-only sort of things. People will be taking your temperature and that sort of thing and asking the usual CDC questions you may run into at other places.”

The NCAA allowed voluntary workouts starting last Monday, and Nevada will phase its 31 athletes in Reno into those in the coming weeks. The NCAA has allowed, for this year only, eight hours of required virtual activities such as film sessions and team meetings. Those will continue throughout the month of June, although the athletes returning to campus also will get to use the Wolf Pack’s facilities.

“The problem we’re having is we’re doing a phased approach to who can access our facilities, so while there could be all sports who could participate in voluntary activities (per the NCAA rules) because of our plan that’s just not feasible at this time,” said Ryan Mitchell, Nevada’s director of compliance. “Once we get to July 1, then it will look a little more like what is usually looks like where the basketballs and football can have required summer activities where the coaches are present.

“When our footballs and basketball come back, those 31 student athletes, that’s going to really look like what the summer workouts looked like about eight years ago before summer practices were required. That’s where the strength coaches run everything. Coaches can’t be present during those workouts. It will probably harken back to those Chris Ault days in those summer workouts.”

While June activities are limited to voluntary workouts, the expectation is the NCAA will allow required activities in July. UNR is expected to open campus for the second summer session, which begins July 9. Typically, athletes must be enrolled in classes to take part in required athletic activities. But the NCAA made a one-year change that allows athletes to do required summer workouts without attending class.

“Historically we’ve had our student-athletes in summer school,” Mitchell said. “But this year the NCAA basically applied a blanket waiver in those three sports if you have required activities on July 1, those student-athlete don’t have to meet those academic benchmarks to work out in the summer. From the voluntary workout standpoint, there’s never been an academic component tied to that.”

Knuth said athletes from football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball were chosen because those sports are the only three that usually has required summer workouts. The remainder of the fall sports, including women’s soccer, cross country and volleyball, are expected to return to Reno in early to mid-August depending upon when their first competition is. All of those athletes will be required to go through the 14-day quarantine process before joining their team for activities. Among the early returners, Nevada has targeted a June 13 date for the beginning of voluntary workouts.

“It’s a moving target because each athlete has a certain number of days to be in Reno, to be local to do their self-isolation,” Knuth said. “Some of the athletes are here and in place and starting their quarantine, their self-isolation. Once they go through that period, those 14 days, they can get in the gym and start working with the strength coaches. Some of them were here a day or two early and some of them are just arriving now, so that will determine a little bit how quickly they can get in the gym.”

Islas said weekly testing will be the new normal for Wolf Pack athletes until that is no longer part of the national surveillance of COVID-19. The department will do the testing on campus in partnership with Nevada state labs.

“From a general standpoint, from a medical standout, I’m really excited about our plan,” Islas said. “I think we have a very good plan and are following not only the NCAA guidelines but actually are being a little more cautious and a little more preventative.”

Knuth said his optimism that there will be a fall sports season, including the financial driver that is football, has improved in recent weeks as medical personnel has gotten a better understanding of COVID-19 and states have begun to reopen. The 31-player pilot program will provide even more information.

“We can’t predict the future, of course, but every week that goes by I get a little more optimistic that we’re going to have a fall sports season, that we’re going to play football and we’re going to be able to keep our students safe, our coaches and our staff safe and keep all of our families safe,” Knuth said. “I feel better about it almost every week because there’s new information, and we as a community in Northern Nevada have done a really good job. Hopefully we continue that trend, and if we continue that trend I think we’ll have a positive outcome.”

Columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at crmurray@sbgtv.com or follow him on Twitter @ByChrisMurray.

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