Basketball has been the only sport played at UD since March 2020, but Athletic Director Neil Sullivan is ready to navigate 2021. Photo courtesy of Flyer News.
With students returning to the University of Dayton for the spring semester, athletes return with them on a quest to play after the cancellation of all sports in both the spring and fall semesters in 2021.
For Athletic Director Neil Sullivan, UD’s first priority is to get students back to campus and, along with the Atlantic 10 conference, the program intends to have meaningful competition in the spring.
“As it currently stands, all the NCAA championships in the spring and from the fall have all been moved to the spring,” Sullivan said. “I think, clearly, it’s no secret that we’re kind of day-to-day with COVID, (asking) how those plans shape out.
“We’re preparing for a number of different scenarios, but I’d tell you the short version for us is that we’re trying to get the young men and women back to Dayton, back here safely and acclimated to the campus protocols. We’ll take it a step at a time to ease into training, and hopefully at some point, COVID conditions allow, some competition.”
Sullivan added the UD athletic program has broken the process into phases, beginning with the training process and then competition.
As of now, Sullivan said UD has schedules in place, along with “frameworks” for competitions to take place. While each of these schedules and frameworks varies by sport, UD will stick to mainly conference-only games, and play what limited non-conference games they can against regional teams.
Playing conference-only and regional games allows UD to better combat the spread of COVID-19, which is still a very corporeal threat to student-athletes and coaches.
With a medical staff Sullivan said is “second to none,” the Flyers remain in frequent contact with public health experts (weekly according to Sullivan), and are part of a group in Ohio working to allow more fans into arenas in Ohio.
“Certainly, we’re hopeful that the opportunity (to allow more fans into arenas) will present itself here at some point,” Sullivan said. “That hasn’t happened yet, but we are in continuous communication on ways to see if that may be possible, while at the same time, making sure that the health of the public and the community is most important.”
As the Flyers program moves into the spring semester, they have faced countless challenges and made sacrifices to get to where they are now with the potential chance to compete on the near horizon.
One of those challenges, which has tried everyone during the isolation caused by COVID-19, is the continued obstacle of maintaining good mental health. With the help of university campus-wide measures and staff psychologists, Sullivan said UD prioritizes good communication and keeping their student-athletes informed.
“I think if we’re able to communicate with student athletes what we see, how we see things playing out, and just communicate what we do know,” Sullivan said. “Just to keep them more informed, it’s part of the process. It’s always more difficult, everything is so uncertain right now, that uncertainty increases in magnitude when you don’t have information.
“So we try to be really transparent, really communicating, our coaches are doing the best they can to allow people to try to stay connected. But sports is a big part of our student athletes’ identity, a big part of who they are, and it certainly challenges them without it.
“But our young people, they’re resilient, they’re determined, they’re very mature. So they’re coping as best they can, but (their mental health) is certainly something we think about on a daily basis, and try to make sure that we have that adequate support that athletes need across all our sports.”
Sullivan said the Flyers have had a “tough go of it,” but have been able to move past the period of August to late October when little to no athletic activity took place, and since returning to the practice fields and courts in early November, Sullivan praised the sacrifices made by the young men and women of UD athletics.
“(Playing sports in COVID-19 times) requires a lot of sacrifice from these young men and women, like it does of all students,” Sullivan said. “They trained in pods of groups, and households, and their masking, hygiene, health etiquette had to be extraordinary, their testing procedures… Our athletes really made a lot of sacrifices, our coaches, we changed how we did everything.”
Moving into the spring season, where fall sports will merge with spring sports to (hopefully) create a busy spring semester, Sullivan said he first hopes UD has a healthy campus.
“I don’t know how it will play out, I can tell you how I hope it will play out, which is that we have a healthy campus, our students are learning, our students are engaged in the classroom… our athletes are working at their craft, getting a chance to compete,” Sullivan said. “But what success looks like for this year is a successful campus experience for everyone, not just student athletes, but for our staff, our students, and if we can play some games in between there, and give our young people a chance to compete, that’s what we want to do.
“But we just want to do it healthy and safe, and we recognize the type of year that this is, and so success for us is being back together as a campus and learning, graduating and competing.”