A triple threat of fast-breaking COVID-19 variants, widespread holiday gatherings and the prospect of large groups returning to confined gymnasiums has formed like Voltron to force a three-week pause on winter sports in the Northwest Athletic Conference.
On Tuesday, the governing body of the NWAC voted to suspend athletic competitions until the week of Jan. 17 in an effort to head off a widespread COVID-19 outbreak within the NWAC ranks that could put league schedules and even postseason play into jeopardy.
NWAC executive director Marco Azurdia explained on Wednesday that regional surges in COVID-19 cases related to the omicron variant prior to holiday season already had conference decision makers on high alert. A cascade of changes by major professional sports and four year college athletic conferences over the last few weeks only made the writing on the wall that more clear.
When factoring in a wave of trips home for the holidays that inevitably led to the comingling of players and coaches with a larger cross section of the population than normal, the powers that be decided the risk was just too great to allow teams to immediately resume competitions.
“There always seems to be a spike after the holidays,” Arzurdia said. “We’re just trying to be anticipatory and just be prepared. We know we have to do everything we can to play through it.”
Preliminary discussions about pausing the season began after weekend games wrapped up on Dec. 19. Shortly thereafter Azurdia sent out a memo to conference managers and athletic directors asking them to rethink hosting any holiday tournaments in light of the spike in COVID-19 positive caes.
“In light of everything that’s going on shouldn’t we just be rethinking what’s going on?” Azurdia said. “Is it really that important to get these games in during the break?”
The break from action will provide an extended opportunity for student athletes returning from the holiday break where they can get tested for COVID-19 and then quarantine themselves if need be.
Centralia College women’s basketball team had planned to compete in Lower Columbia College’s Holiday Classic basketball tournament set for Jan. 5.
Lower Columbia College athletic director Kirc Roland had already moved to cancel the tournament this week prior to Wednesday’s announcement by the NWAC. That cancellation was caused by a combination of extreme winter weather in western Washington, along with COVID-19 issues for several of the teams scheduled to participate.
With so many cancellations stacking up before the new year Roland believes the extra time off will also provide athletes with much needed time to get back in game shape.
Roland added that right now the idea among athletic directors is to move the first two weeks of the league schedule to the back end of the regular season in order to minimize schedule changes. As of now, the NWAC championship tournament is scheduled to take place March 17-20 at Everett Community College.
The Trailblazer women (6-5) have three other games postponed that were originally on the schedule from Jan. 8 to Jan. 15. The Trailblazer men (1-10) have four games now postponed that were scheduled from Jan. 5 to Jan. 15.
The NWAC’s Sports Medicine Advisory Committee will take the next few weeks to review the latest virus related data and health recommendations. The committee’s next meeting is scheduled for Thursday and changes to COVID-19 related safety protocols for basketball are expected to be announced within the next week.
With jarring memories of the spring of 2020 still fresh in so many minds, Azurdia understands that many sports fans will be fearful that this brief hiatus from on court action could transform into a large-scale shutdown. Still, it’s his contention that the decision to pause the season for a fortnight is the best move the NWAC can make at this juncture in an effort to prevent mass cancellations in the future.
“I’m gonna choose to believe that this is a two week pause and we’re going to try to do everything in our power to get back,” Azurdia said. “By the time we get to February and March, we should be seeing a downward trend.”