The NJCAA and Kansas Jayhawk Conference announced that sports, for now at least, will go on for the 2020-21 season. Now, coaches at Labette are gearing up for some radical changes to their seasons in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Haley Miller, the Labette Cardinals volleyball head coach going into her third season, is the only coach of a fall sport at Labette. Volleyball would have been among the first on the chopping block if the coronavirus pandemic forced more cancellations of athletics.

“I’m excited that we get to have a season,” Miller said. “I feel very fortunate that I got to have a full season last year and don’t have any changes thus far for this year.”

While the NJCAA is searching for new national tournament sites for various fall sports due to travel concerns and re-opening regulations, no radical changes to season structure were made to fall sports. The KJCCC is mandating that member schools cut 10% of its schedule across the board for all sports. 

The NJCAA issued various safety protocols in an effort to stymie the potential spread of COVID-19. These include adhering to social distancing guidelines for fans and staff, frequent disinfecting of equipment and frequently touched surfaces, limiting use of shared objects, no sharing of towels or water bottles and the encouraging the wearing of masks by fans and gameday staff.

“Normal gameday protocol for volleyball is to shake hands to start and end with,” Miller said. “I’m sure we’ll do away with that. We’re rethinking how we can keep our athletes safe and healthy while playing volleyball.”

KJCCC Commissioner Carl Heinrich told the Sun that safety protocol will be enforced within the conference.

“We’ll stick to it pretty strongly,” Miller said. “It’s a good idea. There’s not a lot of space in the stands for people to socially distance, so we’ll have to think about that.”

Winter sports saw perhaps the most drastic changes to its schedules by the NJCAA. Basketball can start practice and games two weeks earlier than normal while wrestling has been pushed back to a Jan. 20, 2021 start date for competition.

For basketball, the NJCAA is encouraging, but not mandating, that schools avoid games between Thanksgiving and Jan. 1. This would accommodate a growing trend of schools choosing to end in-person fall semester classes after Thanksgiving in an effort to limit back-and-forth travel.

Mitch Rolls, the women’s basketball coach at Labette that guided the Cardinals to a KJCCC title in 2019-20, says his team currently has games scheduled between Thanksgiving and January.

“Thankfully it’s not a mandate. We have some games that fall in that timeframe. We’ll have to work with our administration and other school’s administrations,” Rolls said. “I don’t want to have to sit my kids that long. I’d worry about injuries and losing some of their strength. That’s my main concern.” 

For Rolls, the prospect of having a full season is enlightening after his team’s bid to the national tournament was called off due to the pandemic earlier this year.

“Nothing’s canceled. That’s all we cared about,” Rolls said. “Our girls will get a chance to play and expose themselves to four-year schools. I don’t want to shortchange any of our players. Last year’s group got shortchanged by not going to the national tournament and I don’t want that for this year’s group.” 

The shift in wrestling’s schedule to January is undoubtedly the biggest wholesale change to athletics at Labette. Head coach Jeff Vesta wasn’t shocked by the NJCAA’s decision.

“I kind of saw this happening,” Vesta said. “Division I has wanted to move this way for a few years now. A lot of junior colleges want to just be a one-semester sport. It didn’t take me too off-guard. I wish it would’ve happened sooner before I set up a bunch of home duals and schedules.” 

Weight management for the Labette wrestlers, who now only have to make weight in one semester of the year, will be a point of emphasis for Vesta.

“Regardless of how you break it down, they’re 18-year-old kids,” Vesta said. “Now they don’t have to hardly watch their weight the first semester. That could make it harder in the second semester to make weight.” 

Wrestling teams will get a month-long practice period in October. 

“The biggest impact is guys getting here in August that won’t get to wrestle until January,” Vesta said. “We’ve got to keep them ready to go. That’ll be a different challenge. It’s going to be a different challenge keeping them engaged.” 

As for spring sports — softball and baseball at Labette — with the exception of the proposed schedule cuts from the KJCCC, their seasons remain unchanged for now. 

“Overall, it’s not anything different for us,” Labette softball head coach Ryan Phillips said. “We typically sit around 26 to 27 dates anyways since our schedule starts late being in the Midwest.”

Heinrich is cautiously optimistic at the prospects of a season for KJCCC schools this year, including Labette. He also fears the potential of a second wave of COVID-19 to derail the campaign.

For now, Labette athletics has its initial framework for the 2020-21 season.

“It’ll be important that everybody understands that it’s a moving situation,” Labette men’s basketball head coach Jerrod Stanford said. “Everything will keep changing and evolving. The next step could be that we only play Kansas schools. Or we could have states around us not let JUCOs travel across state lines. We’ve got to be ready to adapt.” 

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