‘Slim pickings’ as Navy fall sports coaches piece together 2020 schedules amid a pandemic

In this file photo from Aug. 29, 2019, Navy's Kristina Dzhandzhapanyan runs through her teammates onto the field for a women's soccer game against LSU. Navy's olympic sports coaches continue to put a fall schedule together, but for some it's "slim pickings" as conferences around the country continue to cancel or postpone.
In this file photo from Aug. 29, 2019, Navy’s Kristina Dzhandzhapanyan runs through her teammates onto the field for a women’s soccer game against LSU. Navy’s olympic sports coaches continue to put a fall schedule together, but for some it’s “slim pickings” as conferences around the country continue to cancel or postpone. (Joshua McKerrow/Capital Gazette)

When Navy athletics unveiled guidelines to play this fall, volleyball coach Paco Labrador drew a circle on a map and asked, “Who’s within a four-hour drive?”

Each Navy fall sports coach is gingerly stitching schedules together as their options gradually crumble around them due to cancellations and travel restrictions because of the coronavirus pandemic. When the Patriot League canceled fall sports in July, each of the five olympic Navy sports participating were issued an exemption due to the sports’ fulfillment of the Naval Academy’s mission to physically develop future officers.

Many other conferences have not caught the same break. More than half of NCAA schools will not play through the end of 2020. The NCAA is currently considering moving Division I fall championships to spring due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic after the Division I council made the recommendation to its board of directors earlier this week.https://platform.twitter.com/embed/index.html?creatorScreenName=capgaznews&dnt=false&embedId=twitter-widget-0&frame=false&hideCard=false&hideThread=false&id=1282813921326518272&lang=en&origin=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.capitalgazette.com%2Fsports%2Fnavy%2Fac-cs-navy-fall-sports-schedules-coronavirus-20200821-ogmorqmsobcwdhafjiro5urbfq-story.html&siteScreenName=capgaznews&theme=light&widgetsVersion=223fc1c4%3A1596143124634&width=550px

Some coaches have had an easier time crafting a lineup of games than others. Women’s soccer coach Carin Gabarra feels confident her schedule will mostly hold together. The program’s season will hopefully begin the weekend of Sept. 4.

“We’ve managed to schedule a lot of games early on, and some conferences change and we have to make changes,” Gabarra said. “We’ve still been talking to six-to-eight schools that want to play and are willing to play. We talk tentative dates. We’re really just not going to lock anything in until we get an announcement from NCAA exactly what’s going on this fall.”

There are other reasonable hurdles any potential opponent of Navy’s must comply with. Each school must have its own robust medical protocol that fits Navy’s standards which, considering various big-time schools across the country have dealt with coronavirus outbreaks, is not the norm everywhere.

Even so, not knowing who exactly will be left to play come each game day doesn’t slow Gabarra’s players’ motivations. She’ll rely on her seniors, who have already shown leadership as the soccer team navigates the new world.

“You’re talking about Naval Academy students and midshipmen who are really just driven, who want to become better and better people and better athletes and students. They’re taking this in stride,” Gabarra said. “It’s not just happening to us, but to everyone around the world. A lot of changes and unknowns and adversity, but everyday [they] get out there and do what they need to do.”

Labrador’s schedule is less steady. He’s arranged three matches with two ACC opponents, Virginia and North Carolina, and one other non-conference opponent. That’s in addition to a two-match series with Army, which received the same green light to play as its rival. Labrador hopes to pull in a few more, such as Pitt.

The plan, like anything else, could change. The ACC’s current plan is to begin fall sports Sept. 10.

Labrador hasn’t sent any contracts out yet.

Even tacking a few more Army matchups on the schedule isn’t as simple as it sounds. Though Navy and Army volleyball met at the Pentagon last year, arranging a contest on a neutral site amid the pandemic would be complicated, to say the least.

“Where are you going to go? Where are you going to meet halfway? What’s the safe place? You’re probably going to have to bring in your own staff to do it,” Labrador mused. “It could be challenging, but I’ve seen the academies accomplish some logistically-challenging things.”

Men’s cross-country coach Aaron Lanzel believes he and Army’s director of track-and-field and cross-country Mike Smith are of a similar mindset when it comes to adding an additional meet: it’s unlikely to happen.

“This sport is just a little different. Most other sports, you get a new down, new ball possession. There’s a lot of unpredictability built into games. For us, it’s a race,” Lanzel said. “If it’s just a one-on-one, just another dual meet, it’s probably not desirable. If we find another way, it’s not off the table.”

Lanzel is not picky when it comes to opponents. The week of his projected first meet, Sept. 12, he’ll cast a four-hour’s-drive net and try to reel in one or two teams.

Six to eight teams normally attend the Navy Invitational, but most have canceled. Likewise, the Midshipmen usually travel to crowded meets with a minimum of 30 teams in attendance , which have of course been canceled.

He currently has four or five teams that expect to meet Navy at some point this season.

Ultimately, no opponent will be locked in until the day before, when all coronavirus tests come back clean. That’s enough to process for now; Lanzel’s not prepared to map out the entire season yet.

“We’re still trying to figure out September at the moment,” Lanzel said.

Waiting for the competition date is still somewhat nerve-wracking but is made less so because Navy’s in-house athletics rules outlaw hotel stays. Because of that, Labrador said, there’s no hotel cancellations and inherent fees to worry about.

“Really the only entity that needs some advance notice are our buses here,” the volleyball coach said, “and they’re pretty easy to just say, ‘Hey, we just need this for this time,’ and they’re available.”

A lighter season doesn’t change the volleyball players’ drive; if anything, Labrador noted, it just highlights the team’s original goals.

Ever since the winter, when rising senior Maddi Sgattoni and her fellow seniors began meeting weekly to talk leadership, they agreed the goal this season would be to instill a lasting culture. That can still happen, no matter what games are played.

Regardless of any likely bumps down the road, Labrador and his team feel fortunate for the fall. Whomever they play is still a match, and it’s a lot more than the over half of the country’s college sports programs that have shut down for 2020.

“They all have friends on other teams who are not even at school yet, much less practicing with their teammates, spending time with their coaches, in the weight room with their strength-and-conditioning coach,” Labrador said. “This is kind of a gift. We get to be together.”Katherine FominykhCONTACT  

Katherine Fominykh covers high school and college sports in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties. During the summer of 2018, she worked as sports reporting intern for The Baltimore Sun. She graduated from Emerson College in the most intense sports city in America, Boston, with a Bachelor’s in journalism in 2018, and is coming here from The Boston Globe sports desk, where she spent six months as an intern covering high school and regional sports, and then stayed on for another five as the high school swimming and softball beat writer, with a little NCAA hockey mixed in.