'It changes things for everyone.' How local NCAA athletes are dealing with uncertainty of fall season

Wyatt Blake returned to Evanston in mid-June to work out with his Northwestern football teammates at the palatial Walter Athletics Center.

The Wildcats hoisted iron, enjoyed the view of the Lake Michigan shoreline and tried to remain optimistic about football actually being played this fall.

Last week, however, Blake and other Big Ten athletes heard news that hardly came as a shock. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren announced that the conference would move its fall sports seasons to the spring.

The Big Ten was the first of the Power Five conferences to announce it, with the Pac-10 following suit later that same day. The other three Power Fives – Atlantic Coast Conference, Big 12 Conference and Southeastern Conference – are moving forward with plans to play sports this fall.

The American Athletic Conference, Conference USA and Sun Belt Conferences also will continue with their fall sports seasons, which leaves how the NCAA will determine national champions in question.

“It changes things for everyone,” said Blake, a sophomore defensive tackle and 2018 graduate of Crystal Lake Central. “We haven’t had a fall without football in forever. It was kind of like I knew it was going to happen almost. I’m disappointed not just for myself but for everyone.”

Blake worked out with former Crystal Lake South lineman Trevor Keegan (Michigan) and former Jacobs lineman Jimmy Wormsley (Southern Illinois) at Davis Speed Center in Crystal Lake in the spring and early summer before returning to Northwestern.

Blake understood part of the decision made by the Big Ten, as well as other conferences, had to do with myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart’s muscular wall that, according to an ESPN report, was found in at least five Big Ten athletes. Several other conferences also had athletes suffering from the condition because of the coronavirus, according to the report.

“It’s kind of that our demands that we need to happen for us to be safe pretty much couldn’t be met,” Blake said. “There’s a lot of legal questions about liability. No one knows what can happen if you play with the virus. It’s kind of an unknown.”

Jacobs graduate Noah Melick, a redshirt sophomore soccer player at Wisconsin, was eager to get back on the field after suffering three concussions during the Badgers’ disappointing 2-9-2 season last year.

“We kind of knew it was coming,” Melick said. “Our season basically depended on the football season. It never jelled last season. We really wanted to prove we’re one of the best teams in the Big Ten.”

Like Blake, Melick mentioned the heart issue regarding myocarditis as a factor in postponing fall sports. He feels as though Wisconsin is doing everything to keep its athletes safe.

“I think they’re doing one of the best jobs in the Big Ten,” Melick said. “I’ve heard mixed conversations about other schools following the protocols. I’m sure everybody cares about their athletes for the athletic department. We get tested twice a week, and they come back within 24 to 48 hours, so we know right away.”

Pushing forward

Richmond-Burton graduate Dalton Wagner is a local football player who should get to play this fall at Arkansas, an SEC member. Wagner, a redshirt junior, started all 12 games at right tackle for the Razorbacks and started training camp Monday with the team.

Wagner lauds the attention paid to safety precautions by the Razorbacks’ staff. The equipment staff attached plastic shields to the face masks of each helmet, coaches constantly remind players to keep their distance, and players have neck gaiters they pull up when their helmets are off.

“The safest place you can be is at football,” Wagner said. “You’re mandated to wear a mask every time you’re in the building, you have to wash your hands before you grab something from the fridge, they’re constantly wiping down things after somebody uses them.

“We take it personally; we’ve been blessed to have a low number of [COVID-19 cases]. We’re been really good about making sure we take care of each other. [Head] coach [Sam] Pittman put it the best way: ‘You have to act like you’ve got the virus and have to protect those around you.’ ”

The SEC plans to play a 10-game schedule of conference-only games, which will give Arkansas one of the toughest schedules in the nation. Wagner thinks the nation’s top college football conference can get through the season without incident.

“They will test us two or three times a week, almost every other day,” Wagner said. “That’s a lot of times getting up in your brain (a swab up the nose is used for tests), but I think it will be business as usual this year.”

Crystal Lake Central graduate Romeo McKnight so desperately wanted to play this fall that he announced Friday on Twitter he had entered the NCAA transfer portal and would leave Illinois State. He told any possible schools, “I am ready to play football.”

McKnight flourished in two seasons with the Redbirds, recording 12½ sacks last season for a Football Championship Subdivision playoffs quarterfinal team. This late, some schools may not have scholarship money available, but even if McKnight walks on at one of the six Division I conference schools playing this fall, it allows him to prepare for April’s NFL draft next semester.

Postseasons delayed

Florida Atlantic outside hitter Sydney Nemtuda, a Marian Central graduate, has mixed emotions about this fall. Conference USA still plans on playing, but the NCAA Tournament will not happen until perhaps after the spring season.

“Our conference is still set [on playing] right now,” Nemtuda said. “But we’re really not counting on it. When the NCAA postponed the championships, I wasn’t surprised. Safety is the most important thing, and us traveling on airplanes and staying in hotels is dangerous. This is my senior year; it’s supposed to be your best year, and not having a senior day and everything like that, I’m a little upset about that. But safety is the most important aspect in the whole situation.”

Southeast Missouri State defensive specialist Ally Dion, a Huntley graduate, may get a shot at the NCAA Tournament in the spring if the Redhawks can repeat as Ohio Valley Conference champions.

“For us, it’s almost better,” Dion said. “If we would have played [in the fall], we wouldn’t have gotten a full season. I’m very optimistic that we’ll be able to have a longer season in the spring. We’ll train and hopefully be able to defend our [conference] title.”

Both Nemtuda and Dion thought their respective schools have been diligent at taking proper care of their athletes. Both programs wear masks while lifting weights and some other activities, then take them off for practices.

“I feel pretty safe,” Nemtuda said. “It’s inevitable that being around a group of girls and sharing facilities [there is risk], but they’re cleaning everything, wiping everything down after practices. I feel safe in that aspect. The traveling, staying in hotels and airports, that part I’m nervous about.”

Dion feels the extra time might lead to a safer season in the spring.

“I think it was a smart move [to delay],” she said. “I don’t think it will be a completely normal season. That’s five or six months from now. Hopefully they’ll figure something out and be able to keep it under control by then. There are a lot of unknowns.”

No way to leave

Johnsburg graduate Alex Peete was disappointed when D-III Wisconsin-Whitewater’s football season was pushed to the spring. Peete led the NCAA D-III runner-up Warhawks with 1,118 yards rushing and 14 touchdowns last season.

“I was upset, but at the same time, I kind of took the ‘Everything happens for a reason’ approach,” Peete said. “I told myself I was coming back for my last season, especially after how we ended last season. In high school, we took second place too (in Class 4A in 2016, losing to Rochester), so I was like, ‘There’s no way I could finish like that.’

“Once I saw the Ivy League was canceling (on July 8), I kind of figured this. It was one of those things you don’t want to believe, but at the same time, you can see the reality.”

NCAA athletes playing this fall will get a lot of attention, although spring athletes will have time on their side.

“In the spring, I think we’ll be safe,” Melick said. “I think the schedules this fall would have been perfectly fine with everything I’m hearing. We have a lot to look forward to and a lot of time to train and get back to where we want to be.”

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