Updated January 12, 2021 - 9:50 am
How is this for a whopper: In a college basketball season turned upside down by COVID-19, one of the programs to best handle testing and protocols and the multitude of curveballs thrown the game’s way is a 250-student NAIA school with no full athletic scholarships.
Saint Katherine is a private undergraduate university in San Marcos, California, about 35 minutes from downtown San Diego. The Firebirds play UNLV on Tuesday afternoon in the Thomas & Mack Center.
They were scheduled to arrive Monday in two 15-passenger vans. That’s how they roll, whether it’s a short drive up the freeway to engage San Diego State or a road trip against Southern Utah one night in Cedar City and at UC Santa Barbara the following afternoon. You read that right. Back to back. In vans.
“They are stretch vans where every kid gets his own row,” said coach Kevin Williamson.
‘A huge blessing’
They can do this because of school founder and president Dr. Frank Papatheofanis, a physician and scientist who arranged for a testing protocol that rivals or surpasses any NCAA Division I school. Players wear masks while in the vans. They wear them at all times during practice, even when scrimmaging five on five.
The school is emphatic about PCR testing, which is known to produce fewer false-positive results. The Firebirds had no positive tests until players were sent home for Christmas with the agreement they would be tested three times and not on consecutive days. One tested positive. He remained home for a full quarantine period.
“It’s a huge blessing that (Papatheofanis) is a doctor and able to provide us with the testing and so much knowledge,” Williamson said. “Being able to practice and play helps so much the mental health and balance of our young men and their lives.
“I talk to coaches whose kids are really, really struggling with everything going on in the world. Playing is great to get frustration out and just get them connected with some kind of social outlet.”
UNLV will win its second game of the season Tuesday. Like, in a big way.
Saint Katherine has played 10 games and nine have come against Division I teams. All losses. The average score in such outings: 87-47.
The Firebirds consider such games exhibitions, which is why their record remains a listed at 1-0 after a season-opening victory against fellow NAIA member San Diego Christian College.
But few at their level have employed such testing protocols as the Firebirds, which is why Williamson and his team have become so attractive to Division I programs seeking games.
Lacking in trainers
“My players have come to realize the realities of playing NAIA competition because of the lack of testing,” Williamson said. “So I put the question out to them: We can play, for example, UNLV and Pepperdine, or we can sit at home and wait for some other NAIA team to hopefully test negative to get to the gym. Every time, they’re like, ‘We get it. Let’s play.’ ”
This will be the final Division I game for Saint Katherine this season, no matter how many coaches continue to blow up Williamson’s cellphone. The school employs just a handful of trainers, and athletes from spring sports — you can have rosters upwards of 40 players for ones like baseball in the NAIA world — are about to hit the field.
There are only so many folks around to tape ankles and help administer testing.
“Our kids always know it could be their last game, that we could be shut down at any time,” Williamson said. “They get that games against Division I teams have the highest possible chance to take place, so they’re willing to do it.”
Long van trips and all.
Ed Graney is a Sigma Delta Chi Award winner for sports column writing and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.