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Carlson: Why college football isn't the only fall sport dealing with drama, difficulties

Maya McCutcheon, second from right, talks with teammates during a recent OU soccer practice. The Sooners started practice earlier this month, but with the pandemic causing uncertainty, they do not know exactly when their season will start, how long it will last or how many games they will play. [OU ATHLETICS]
Maya McCutcheon, second from right, talks with teammates during a recent OU soccer practice. The Sooners started practice earlier this month, but with the pandemic causing uncertainty, they do not know exactly when their season will start, how long it will last or how many games they will play. [OU ATHLETICS]

That first preseason practice has been described lots of ways.

Grueling. Difficult. Exhausting.

But none of that fit this year for Megan Reilly.

“It was weird,” the OU soccer player said with a smile. “Some people I hadn’t seen since February.”

That made the Sooners’ first practice a few weeks ago exciting. Crazy. Even kind of fun.

Reilly’s teammate Maya McCutcheon even went so far as to say that practice was really fun.

“It just didn’t feel real,” McCutcheon added.

At a time the sports world is focused on what is happening with college football — Will the Big 12, SEC and ACC make it through a fall season? Will the Big Ten or Pac-12 look brilliant or bupkis for postponing until the spring? — it’s easy to overlook the hundreds of teams and thousands of athletes playing fall sports other than football. There’s soccer, volleyball and cross country among others.

All have had their NCAA championships postponed until spring because of the coronavirus pandemic; that became official by NCAA vote Wednesday night. But while some teams are in conferences that have suspended all athletics until the end of the calendar year, others play in leagues that have decided to continue fall sports, including the Big 12.

Even as the NCAA moves toward a free year of eligibility for all fall athletes, there are still questions and concerns, excitements and hangups.

When will they be able to play again?

What will that season look like?

Will they be safe?

Uncertainty has gripped their sports every bit as much as football.

“I really feel for all the athletes, not just the soccer players,” OSU soccer coach Colin Carmichael said. “We’re the ones affected now, but those kids that got affected last spring, you realize what everybody’s going through.”

At this point, every single college sport has been impacted by the pandemic. Winter sports were cut short last March while spring sports never really got started. Now, fall sports are up in the air.

Carmichael and his Cowgirls have lived that reality for several months. Even as they made plans for the fall, the end line kept moving. First, Carmichael told his players to return to campus June 20, then the medical team decided the return date should be July 1.

Then, it was after the Fourth of July weekend.

Then, it was July 13.

“I felt awful having to have those conversations with our team because we didn’t want to get their hopes up and then kind of pull the rug out from under them a week later,” Carmichael said, adding he understood why the doctors opted for those delays. “Those were some tough times for us and for our kids.”

Carmichael and his coaches have preached flexibility. Things will change. There will be adversity.

But they have also talked about gratitude.

“I tell our kids every day when we show up for training … I’ve got friends who coach in other conferences who have postponed till the spring and they’re still practicing,” Carmichael said. “So, how would it be for those kids right now, showing up, training, knowing that they don’t have a game until March?”

As of now, the Cowgirls will play a Big 12-only schedule starting Sept. 10.

But the plan may have to change.

Again.

The NCAA will meet Friday to discuss issues of eligibility. Even though the NCAA Division I Council recommended Wednesday all athletes of fall sports should be given a free year of eligibility no matter how much they compete, questions remain. If teams play a limited schedule this fall, say conference-only opponents, could they still play in the spring and compete for an NCAA title? Would athletes be limited on the total number of games they could play this academic year?

The answers are important in figuring out what the fall will look like.

OSU cross country coach Dave Smith, for example, intends on having a fall season and capping it with an event on the school’s course Nov. 21. That is the date OSU was supposed to host the NCAA championships.

Smith doesn’t know who will race that day. Might only be OSU runners. Might be runners from a handful of schools. Or it might be champions from the conferences carrying on with fall sports.

But Smith knows it will scratch an itch for his runners.

“More than anything,” he said, “they just want to have a chance to compete.”

Cross country runners endured the double whammy of losing NCAAs in Stillwater after having their track seasons canceled last spring. The end of the indoor season and the entire outdoor season were scrubbed.

“That was really hard for a lot of them to process and deal with,” Smith said. “They’re almost … ”

He paused a beat.

“I won’t say rudderless but just kind of flowing through the last six months without being able to do what they love to do. That’s tough.”

Reilly and McCutcheon lived those tough moments. The OU soccer players went from seeing each other every day in March, whether during tutoring or conditioning or spring practices, to not knowing when they might be able to resume team activities.

Even as they’ve returned to practice, the questions have continued.

McCutcheon, a sophomore from the DFW suburb of Murphy, Texas, has taken the approach that the uncertainty of the season is just one more plate she has to keep spinning.

“As athletes, we’re kind of used to having to juggle a bunch of things at once, dealing with school and the stress on your body,” she said. “So I feel like a lot of us have approached it like this is just another thing that we’re going to do.”

Reilly, a junior from the Houston suburb of Sugar Land, said, “Everything’s changing every single day. It’s really just being adaptable and really just focusing on the day-by-day things.

“We’re working towards what we want, and ultimately, that’s just to get to play.”

Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or jcarlson@oklahoman.com. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK or follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok.

Related Photos
<strong>OSU soccer coach Colin Carmichael says recent months have been difficult on his players, but he reminds them to be grateful the Big 12 has opted to continue fall sports. [JESSICA MORREY/OSU ATHLETICS]</strong>

OSU soccer coach Colin Carmichael says recent months have been difficult on his players, but he reminds them to be grateful the Big 12 has opted to continue fall sports. [JESSICA MORREY/OSU ATHLETICS]

<figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-5e121074dda5077d552b9e925aa738c8.jpg" alt="Photo - OSU soccer coach Colin Carmichael says recent months have been difficult on his players, but he reminds them to be grateful the Big 12 has opted to continue fall sports. [JESSICA MORREY/OSU ATHLETICS] " title=" OSU soccer coach Colin Carmichael says recent months have been difficult on his players, but he reminds them to be grateful the Big 12 has opted to continue fall sports. [JESSICA MORREY/OSU ATHLETICS] "><figcaption> OSU soccer coach Colin Carmichael says recent months have been difficult on his players, but he reminds them to be grateful the Big 12 has opted to continue fall sports. [JESSICA MORREY/OSU ATHLETICS] </figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-63d7ba277a7fe972dc7c6cca7b2cebd6.jpg" alt="Photo - OU soccer coach Mark Carr will be among the fall sport coaches awaiting an NCAA ruling on eligibility Friday. If it follows a recommendation from the Division I Council, all fall athletes will be granted an extra year of eligibility, no matter how many games they play. [OU ATHLETICS] " title=" OU soccer coach Mark Carr will be among the fall sport coaches awaiting an NCAA ruling on eligibility Friday. If it follows a recommendation from the Division I Council, all fall athletes will be granted an extra year of eligibility, no matter how many games they play. [OU ATHLETICS] "><figcaption> OU soccer coach Mark Carr will be among the fall sport coaches awaiting an NCAA ruling on eligibility Friday. If it follows a recommendation from the Division I Council, all fall athletes will be granted an extra year of eligibility, no matter how many games they play. [OU ATHLETICS] </figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-0ee3a08d4e58d10677c29ab091770baa.jpg" alt="Photo - Maya McCutcheon, second from right, talks with teammates during a recent OU soccer practice. The Sooners started practice earlier this month, but with the pandemic causing uncertainty, they do not know exactly when their season will start, how long it will last or how many games they will play. [OU ATHLETICS] " title=" Maya McCutcheon, second from right, talks with teammates during a recent OU soccer practice. The Sooners started practice earlier this month, but with the pandemic causing uncertainty, they do not know exactly when their season will start, how long it will last or how many games they will play. [OU ATHLETICS] "><figcaption> Maya McCutcheon, second from right, talks with teammates during a recent OU soccer practice. The Sooners started practice earlier this month, but with the pandemic causing uncertainty, they do not know exactly when their season will start, how long it will last or how many games they will play. [OU ATHLETICS] </figcaption></figure>
Jenni Carlson

Jenni Carlson, a sports columnist at The Oklahoman since 1999, came by her love of sports honestly. She grew up in a sports-loving family in Kansas. Her dad coached baseball and did color commentary on the radio for the high school football... Read more ›

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