Racing against the clock: Pac-12 coaches battle the pandemic as the season approaches

Each team has faced its own obstacles. Can they overcome those obstacles before Nov. 25?

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Mya Hollingshed (21) and Charlotte Whittaker (45) of Colorado women’s basketball practice as they prepare for the 2020-21 season. Photo courtesy of the University of Colorado Athletics.

In mere days the 2020-21 women’s basketball season will be upon us. That doesn’t mean that everyone is ready to play. In fact, far from it.

In the Pac-12, coaches are battling everything from canceled non-conference games to government regulations to quarantines as they try to prepare their teams for one of the toughest conferences in the country.

It started early for USC coach Mark Trakh. This summer, teams were allowed to bring in players for voluntary workouts beginning in July. The Women of Troy had just three players who were able to return to campus to do that.

Once practices got underway in earnest, things seemed to be looking up for Trakh and his team. The young squad, featuring last year’s Pac-12 Freshman of the Year, Alissa Pili, has caught the eyes of the media and opposing coaches.

Both groups voted the Women of Troy the sixth-best team in the league. Pili found herself on the preseason All-Pac-12 list. But things weren’t going as well behind the scenes.

As the second week of November dawned, a single positive test for the novel coronavirus shut down the team for two weeks. When Pac-12 media day rolled around on Nov. 17, USC was finally preparing to return to practice the following day.

“Control what you can control, and what you can't control, you just got to be patient,” Trakh said. “We were told we couldn't practice for two weeks, and you just deal with it and continue to communicate with your players. And we just today got together and prepared for tomorrow's practice plan.

The lack of November practices wasn’t the first obstacle Trakh’s team has encountered as they tried to prepare for the season in the middle of the pandemic. While some teams were able to work in the late summer, that wasn’t the case for the teams in California.

“We didn't practice or have any workouts this summer and we just missed a couple of weeks,” Trakh said. “So how are we translating that to our first game? We're going to choose up sides and play a pickup game basically on Nov. 25. There's really not a lot we can put in the next six practices. But hopefully, we'll just roll the ball out and see what happens early.”

Across town, UCLA’s Cori Close doesn’t know who she’s going to be able to roll the ball to. The Bruins have only eight players available.

The first hit to UCLA’s depth chart came via the opt-out. Both Kiara Jefferson and Kayla Owens are taking the season off due to concerns about the pandemic.

The Bruins took another shot from the pandemic when two of their three freshmen were blocked from entering the country.

“This was a very difficult year to have an all international class,” Close said. “Honestly, we were maybe one of the best classes we've ever signed. And so, really, we're excited about having them come in, and then COVID hits.”

Immigration rules governing the entry of international students changed rather suddenly this year. First-year internationals were not allowed to enter the U.S. unless they would be taking at least one in-person class.

That has caught several international student-athletes in a web they can’t get out of. Athletes from several universities, including the two UCLA women’s basketball players, have entered into a lawsuit against the U.S. government to get into the country.

“I really respect UCLA for how they have just really put the health and safety of the student-athletes (first),” Close said. “We have just been in a county that it's really difficult. We don't have an in-person class that those young women can take because of COVID.”

Teams that have a full complement of players are facing their own hurdles. Finding non-conference opponents is a big one.

The league went to a 22-game schedule this season partly to limit the number of games they had to play against teams that might not have the exact same protocols as the Pac-12. But even finding three opponents outside the conference has proved to be a challenge.

Arizona lost two of its three non-conference opponents the week of Nov. 9. That left with only one game on the schedule that wasn’t against a Pac-12 foe.

“Even before COVID, it was…getting more challenging to fill the last couple of games,” Arizona coach Adia Barnes said. “But just last week, we lost two games. So I think the challenging part is navigating all the different conferences, and their rules and their travel bans, and just trying to find games. Because when you're a coach and you have to resort to Twitter to try to find games, it's kind of comical.”

Oregon State has since suffered similar problems. The Beavers lost a game against Idaho when the Vandals canceled.