The Virginia Cavaliers women’s soccer team take the pitch on Saturday night at 6:00 p.m. against the Virginia Tech Hokies at Klockner Stadium. It’s coming about a month later than it would have in the before times—last year at this time, the team had already played two exhibition and six regular season games before September 12. But by golly, we’ve got sports, we’ve got soccer, and we’ve got ourselves a season coming up!
It wasn’t easy getting here. The initial schedule was a work several years in the making, head coach Steve Swanson told the media on Thursday. And as the summer progressed and it became clear that the schedule wasn’t going to happen as planned, the conference got together to figure out a plan.
“One of the most difficult things in this pandemic,” Swanson said, “is trying to get information that you can’t get in order to make decisions you need to make.”
With other conferences opting out of a fall season, and other individual schools having to drop out as well—either as their own decision or because they wouldn’t have met the medical standards that the ACC was mandating, the athletics directors and head coaches realized they had to scrap the years-in-the-making schedules and come up with something brand new.
“I think we tried to do that in the best possible way the first time, but as a coaching group, we decided, look, let’s see if we can maybe make this work a little differently, and so we proposed a new one.”
The new schedule wasn’t ironed out until about two weeks before the start of the season, and it wasn’t publicly announced until just last Thursday, September 4.
Part of the challenge was the NC State also needed to opt out of the season. With six international students unable to return to campus and some lingering injuries among those players able to return, their roster was simply too depleted to field a team ready to play an entire season.
It wasn’t just about the number of schools available for competition. While the ACC plans to go forward with an ACC Championship in November in North Carolina, the NCAA cancelled NCAA championships across all the fall sports.
But that’s not definitive, Swanson said. There won’t be a fall championship, but there’s certainly a possibility that the NCAA decides to schedule a spring championship for fall sports, especially if the conferences that cancelled fall sports—notably the Big Ten and Pac 12—decide to reschedule for the spring.
“If that’s the case, we need to be ready for that, in terms of having games that we could schedule in the spring as well as the fall. So we came up with something as a conference, and as an institution, and we added a few games realizing that we might have some games that we may need to schedule in the spring also.”
“We’re happy that we have a schedule. We’re happy that we’re moving ahead.”
So with a schedule in place, the team was ready to wrap up preseason practice and prepare themselves for at least a season of conference matchups.
But scheduling was perhaps the easy part. The harder part was figuring out a way to hold practices safely, and in particular, avoiding contact tracing becoming a threat to the team’s ability to take the field.
“The big thing is that you’ve got this bubble,” Swanson said. “You’ve got to keep that bubble as tight as possible with the idea that you’re probably—to no fault of anybody’s—you might lose someone to a quarantine here and there. But you have to make sure you’re minimizing the losses with that as best you can.”
To do so, Swanson said that contact tracing was the determinant factor across all of the school’s protocols and policies.
“How can we avoid being contact traced,” Swanson asked. “What is the definition of being contact traced? Given that definition, we need to stay away from anything that puts us in that sphere.”
For coaches, players, and staff alike, whether an individual would be allowed to participate in an activity would depend on the answer to the question of, “If you’re doing this, can you be contact traced” if there’s a positive test? If the answer to that is yes, Swanson said, then that person shouldn’t be doing that activity.
“I think our players for the most part have done an exceptional job on following through on what they need to do to get us to this point.”
While Virginia didn’t release any detailed reporting on which student athletes tested positive among the 25 programs that were tested, or how many were from each sport, Jeff White reported on August 24 that the team had zero positive COVID-19 tests. Since then, the school released a COVID-19 testing update on September 4, showing five new positive tests, all “for individuals who recently returned to Grounds.” The women’s soccer team as a whole, of course, was already well into practice on Grounds by then.
“The team deserves a ton of credit for getting this far,” Swanson said. “We’re excited and hopefully we can bring some measure of normalcy this fall to what is an unusual year academically and sports-related-wise.”
A return to “some measure of normalcy” for a team that 17-2-3 overall last season, with no losses in the regular season, is going to make for another pretty spectacular season.
Virginia and Virginia Tech take the pitch at 6:00 p.m. on Saturday, September 12 in Charlottesville. The schools will face off twice this season, but both are designated as non-conference matchups. Virginia’s contest at North Carolina will also be a non-conference game.