The Lafayette women’s and men’s basketball programs will return to the court in 2021, with a shortened, league-only schedule beginning on Jan. 2. The Patriot League Council of Presidents endorsed the plan, which is contingent on competition that will “protect the health and safety of student-athletes, coaches, staffs and their communities,” according to the press release.
In order to reduce travel and overnight stays, teams have been grouped into three regional mini-conferences with nearby schools and will play four games against each opponent, according to the release. Lafayette joins in-state foes Lehigh and Bucknell in their mini-conference, and will also play a pair of games against Loyola Maryland, Boston University, American and Navy to complete the 16-game regular-season schedule.
Throughout the season, schools will play home-and-home series on consecutive days in accordance with the league’s goal of limiting travel whenever possible. Most series will be played on Saturday and Sunday, according to the release, while the playoffs are scheduled for the first two weeks of March as usual.
All Patriot League teams will be precluded from participating in non-League contests, with the notable exception of Army and Navy who may pursue outside competition because the two schools are “unique in their environments and their missions within higher education.”
The men’s and women’s teams will both face Navy, but not Army, during the regular season in mid-February, but well after the Midshipmen finish their non-conference slates in December, presumably eliminating the risk of transmission.
The league-only schedule also erases the typical non-conference slate during the first two months of the season, forcing teams to adjust quickly and settle on their rotations and game plan before January.
“So now, really, we have to do it on the fly,” said Fran O’Hanlon, the men’s head coach. “We have to do it during league [play] and obviously in practice…it’s an adjustment but we’re all in the same boat. We all have to deal with this.”
Kia Damon-Olson, the women’s head coach, expressed similar sentiments, noting that the lack of a non-conference schedule takes away her team’s ability to prepare for Patriot League play.
“[It] now requires us as coaches to be more creative to make sure that the team is prepared in terms of the different schemes they might feel on the defensive end, or just different styles of plays from teams,” Damon-Olson said. “Some of those things we’re really going to have to spend a good amount of time in practice just working on simulating those things.”
With Covid-19 cases surging nationwide as colder weather forces people indoors, the basketball season will test the league’s ability to limit transmission within a high intensity, high contact sport played exclusively during the winter months. Damon-Olson said there is a “great deal of concern” about the current spread and the potential impact on her team and the league as a whole.
“It kind of reinforces the messaging that we have with our players to follow the guidelines that our medical team has put together,” Damon-Olson said.
O’Hanlon pointed out that people still sometimes get the virus even when precautions are taken, and said his players are all “trying to do all the right things – social distance and wear masks and wash your hands and stay out of harm’s way.”
“I would imagine in college basketball we’ll have some disruptions,” O’Hanlon added. “Hopefully the luck of the draw it won’t be us.”
Despite the risks, both coaches said that their players are excited to return to the court after a long hiatus.
“The guys are extremely excited to have a schedule in front of them,” O’Hanlon said. “A challenging schedule, but…I don’t think they care about that, they care about playing.”
Damon-Olson said that the team had two waves of players return to campus this fall, one group when school started in August and then a second wave in late September. Ever since then, the team has been “working together to get everybody on the same page.”
“It’s been fun, it’s been great energy,” Damon-Olson said. “You have returning players who are excited to build on the success and progress of last year, you have new players who are just excited about playing in college…and so you just have that fresh, youthful energy.”
“Every day is Christmas in practice these days,” she added.
Both the women’s and men’s teams will kick off their 2021 schedule with a familiar foe in Lehigh, with a pair of home-and-home series scheduled to begin on Saturday, Jan. 2.