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Bill Tierney has seen a lot.

"> Scenes From a Season on the Fly | US Lacrosse Magazine

PHOTO COURTESY OF DENVER ATHLETICS

Denver players had to sit in the stands in the season opener to adequately social distance.

Scenes From a Season on the Fly


This story appears in the April edition of US Lacrosse Magazine. Don't get the mag? Join or renew today. Thanks for your support!

Bill Tierney has seen a lot.

You’re bound to when your coaching career began in 1976 at Great Neck South High on Long Island. But nothing in the intervening 45 years during which Tierney has reached the height of his profession several times over — not the seven NCAA Division I championships, the nine title game appearances or the 15 final four berths as a head coach — prepared him for when he looked up into the stands of Denver’s Peter Barton Stadium on Jan. 30 after the longest offseason he’s ever experienced.

Instead of a typical rollicking 2,000-spectator capacity crowd, Tierney saw one of the Pioneers’ 32-player cohorts standing throughout the metal bleachers in their gameday gear for the national anthem.

“That’s when it hit me,” Tierney said.

The scene before Denver’s 9-8 season-opening win against Utah, which reminded Tierney of the “old days” of the NCAA tournament when only 28 players were allowed on the sidelines, was one of the most vivid examples during the opening weekend of play of how the COVID-19 pandemic shaped the look and feel for the 2021 college lacrosse season.

The myriad logistics programs have had to navigate puts the coaching axiom “control what you can control” to the test on a daily basis.

“Going into this season with the COVID situation, you don’t know what’s going to happen,” Brian Holman said on the Utah Lacrosse Podcast. “This is all a mindset, man. … You can choose to let COVID eat you up, or you can choose to adjust your mindset and your life to beating COVID. That’s what I’ve encouraged our guys to do, to not let this thing beat you.”

Still, schedules were best written in pencil. The same goes for lineups. The Pioneers had 11 players unavailable against Utah. Four of their top 16 did not travel for an away doubleheader against Duke and UNC after a single positive test. Overnights turned into day trips whenever possible. Short flights became long bus rides. Practice film doubled as a contract tracing method. Halftimes on the far corner of the field instead of in the locker room were more reminiscent of rec-league games. Teams like Lehigh and Bucknell placed open calls for competition on Twitter.

After every day of practice at Denver, which until the middle of February was split into two cohorts and lasted more than four and half hours for the coaches, associate head coach Matt Brown sprayed the Pioneers’ locker room with a fogging disinfectant. The team dressed for practice in four separate groups in 15-minute increments.

On Thursday, Feb. 11, Denver’s second day of “real” practice, the Pioneers held a full intra-squad scrimmage.

“You wouldn’t normally do that on a Thursday before a game,” Tierney said. “But just getting everybody there was so exciting, and they were all uplifted. It started to feel a bit more like you were coaching lacrosse as opposed to managing shifts.”

A 15-6 win over Air Force started an eight-game winning streak for the Pioneers (11-3). The team received an added boost when NCAA record-setting faceoff specialist TD Ierlan cleared NCAA compliance and transfer protocols to enroll in the final trimester at Denver — his third different school — and gain a Yale degree in the process. The move stemmed from the Yale men’s lacrosse team’s decision to opt out of the 2021 season in light of the Ivy’s league’s uncertain status at the time. Sophomore attackman Skyler Wilson is currently the only Eli practicing in New Haven.

Ierlan, who reunited with Denver graduate transfers and former teammates Jackson Morrill and Lucas Cotler at “Yale West,” was deemed eligible to join team activities a day before the Pioneers were schedule to play at Villanova.

The game was postponed three hours later and eventually rescheduled to April 28. The Pioneers prevailed yesterday 11-10 in overtime.

From Tierney’s office in the Daniel L. Ritchie Center, he can see the Pioneers line up to get nasal swabs or saliva testing at one of the university’s virus testing centers, known as the “COVID-19 Care Pod.”

It’s painted crimson, white and gold.

“It’s pretty surreal, but in another way, it’s comforting as well,” Tierney said. “I look out there and I know our university and our athletic department are taking care of our kids the best they can.”


“Just getting everybody there was so exciting, and they were all uplifted. It started to feel a bit more like you were coaching lacrosse as opposed to managing shifts.”


***

The Wagner women’s lacrosse team was as excited as any team in the country to get its first game under its belt after the way last season ended. The Seahawks started practice on Feb. 10. They tested at 7 a.m. on Thursday, Feb. 18, so that their results would arrive via UPS to the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard and get processed in time to play at Villanova that Sunday. 

A nor’easter altered those plans.

Wagner coach Michelle Tumolo described the situation as fight or flight. The latter, literally, wasn’t an option. Once Tumolo saw the tests were not going to arrive in time, she called Villanova coach Julie Young about moving the game to Tuesday. The schedule change provided the Seahawks an opportunity to test again that Saturday, but they still needed a way to get the tests to Cambridge.

Tumolo took to the road. She hand-delivered the tests after a three-hour drive from Staten Island in her Jeep Compass. “It’s not great on gas,” Tumolo said. It got the job done.

“I’ll do whatever it takes to get this game in,” Tumolo told Wagner’s administration. “These kids have worked so hard for this. They’ve waited so long. I don’t want to cancel a game for a test not getting to a lab in time.”

The impromptu road trip allowed the Seahawks to play their first game in 350 days. They scored two goals in the final 22 seconds to force overtime at Villanova but fell 19-18 to the Wildcats.

Wagner hoped to bounce back against Hofstra less than a week later, before the Pride paused all team activities following a positive COVID-19 test among the team’s Tier 1 personnel. Tumolo connected with Jen Adams at Loyola to fill the hole in their schedule, but a single positive test in the Wagner program forced yet another cancellation out of an abundance of caution. The Seahawks (8-4) played their next game on March 6 — a 15-3 win over Central Connecticut State.

“There’s no better feeling than hearing that first whistle and the starting lineups,” said Tumolo, whose team will conclude its regular season this Saturday against Merrimack — a game originally scheduled for April 3. “I could coach for the rest of my life, but these girls only get four or five promised years. … You just want these kids to play, so it’s really hard to tell them that they can’t.”

Few coaches called more early season audibles than Stony Brook’s Joe Spallina. The first three opponents the Seawolves faced were not on their original schedule. Their first game at North Carolina came together in rapid fashion after the No. 1 Tar Heels’ originally planned opener against James Madison was postponed due to COVID-19 protocols related to the Dukes.

“I heard JMU’s canceled?” Spallina texted UNC and USWNT head coach Jenny Levy. 

“I think so,” Levy replied. “Do you guys want to play?”

“Are you prepared to play them?” the Stony Brook administration asked Spallina after he proposed the idea.

“Of course not,” Spallina replied. “But we want to play.”

After a series of stops and starts mostly because of New York State guidelines, UNC prevailed 14-7 over Stony Brook in the novel Top 10 matchup.

“We’ll play anyone, anywhere,” Spallina said after a 15-3 win over USC, a game which did not exist less than a week earlier. “If it means we travel, we’ll travel. If it means coming to the best lacrosse stadium around, they’re more than welcome to come here. We’re great hosts.”

The USC game also gave Stony Brook graduate transfer Kaeli Huff a chance to face her former team and her younger sister, Kelsey. It was the first time they ever played against each other. 

The reunion for the Huffs, who grew up in Eastport, N.Y., looked different than they had imagined.

“They’re pretty much on a very strict lockdown,” Kaeli Huff said after the USC game. “Her hotel that they stayed in was — I’m not joking — three minutes from my house in Stony Brook. I went this morning to leave energy drinks and water outside on the sidewalk of the hotel for her and we’re waving to each other through the sliding door.

“That was definitely tough.”








  ***

Throughout his 10 years at the helm and 15 overall on the coaching staff at Robert Morris, Andrew McMinn has become more accustomed to the intricacies of extended road trips than most. Given the university’s location in Moon Township (Pa.) in the western suburbs of Pittsburgh, bolstering the Colonials’ strength of schedule often requires playing anyone, anywhere. Usually, though, that’s away from Joe Walton Stadium.

“Even driving across Pennsylvania to Philly is five hours,” McMinn said. “So we’re typically four at a minimum and sometimes then some.”

The road-warrior mentality for the program whose unique transition game and bevy of future National Lacrosse League stars often causes opponents fits has never been more important than this season. After Robert Morris left the Northeast Conference last summer, McMinn was tasked with building a schedule as an independent. He cobbled together 12 games with the potential to add more. Only two are true home games.

“Our approach from the beginning was, let’s schedule as many games as we possibly can,” McMinn said. “Our administration has been extremely supportive. We want to give the guys the opportunity to get as much of a season as we can in place.”

The team holds meetings in the grand concourse of the university’s basketball arena, the UPMC Events Center, since it’s one of the few spots that allows the players and coaches to remain at least six feet apart. That level of detail extends when the Colonials hit the road. Their bus seating and roommate charts are all based upon who has had COVID and who has not.

“You’re literally thinking at all times, what happens if somebody gets it?” McMinn said because of contact tracing protocols.

While McMinn noted assembling a schedule was more challenging than ever as an independent, he also viewed it as an opportunity. Without conference restrictions, the Colonials had a wide-open slate.

“You tell me the date, we’re willing to travel,” he told every coach he called.

Talks with Canisius and Lehigh fell through, but McMinn set up games against ACC powers Duke, Notre Dame and Virginia. This week, he added another against Syracuse at the Carrier Dome on May 7.

That flexibility also helped after the Colonials’ games against Bucknell and Bellarmine got postponed. McMinn and his staff immediately looked for future opponents of other games that were canceled. They made some more calls.

“I’m not sure what’s happening, but if you guys have a cancellation, we’re ready to go with a bus,” McMinn told Colgate’s Matt Karweck. “We planned on traveling as it was.”

The schedule changed required Robert Morris to test an extra time that week. The Colonials walked, or rather drove, away with their first win of the season.

“The message now more than ever to the guys is it’s not just about getting out there and trying to beat teams,” McMinn said. “It’s really about taking every single day and valuing the time and the opportunity that we have to go out and do this when obviously a lot of other people throughout the world are suffering and going through a heck of a lot more adversity than we necessarily are.”




PHOTO COURTESY OF STONY BROOK ATHLETICS

Kelsey Huff (No. 16) played her sister Kaeli, a Stony Brook transfer, for the first time because of a last-minute scheduled game.


***

According to the calendar, the Virginia men’s lacrosse team had hosted Army a little more than two weeks before Mike Szlamowicz was interviewed for this article. For Szlamowicz, it felt more like over a year. The discrepancy makes sense when you realize the extra workload Szlamowicz — the director of video service, live events and ACC Network at the University of Virginia — and his team are tasked with in 2021. The extreme has become routine.

“It’s all the spring sports, all the fall sports, and three times the fun,” Szlamowicz, whose Twitter bio says, “Let’s have a good show, everyone,” said with more than a hint of sarcasm. “But it’s all good to be back at work, so we get to do what we love.”

This winter, Szlamowicz’s schedule included 11 UVA men’s basketball games, seven of which were produced in their entirety from the socially distanced control room of Virginia Sports TV and many home offices. But when it comes to creativity and flexibility, few experiences compared to the end-around required to broadcast the Cavaliers’ 14-9 win over the Black Knights on February 14.

The game itself wasn’t even on the schedule the previous weekend. But after a two-week athletics shutdown at the University of Massachusetts scuttled Army’s season opener, Army coach Joe Alberici connected with Virginia’s Lars Tiffany to schedule the program’s first meeting since 1985.

“It was maybe about 3 o’clock, we were texting back and forth, and it looked like it was good,” Alberici told US Lacrosse Magazine contributor Patrick Stevens. “I just called him and said, ‘Lars, this has gone way too smooth. What aren’t we thinking of right now?’”

In this case, it was a snowstorm, the same one which delayed Wagner’s tests from getting to Cambridge in time. The weather system pushed the Cavaliers’ game from Saturday to Sunday and altered the location from Klöckner Stadium to the Lower Turf practice field. That announcement was accompanied by another piece of news: The game would not be streamed.

UVA has fiber locations across campus, or grounds, where underground fiber optic cables run from the control room to all the venues where the university normally broadcasts games. The practice field is not one of those venues.

Szlamowicz got to thinking. Given the location, a typical four-camera broadcast with graphics, or “all that good stuff,” as he called it, was out of the question. But if there was only one camera, maybe they’d have enough fiber cables to connect from another venue to the Lower Turf field.

“We honestly weren’t even sure that we physically had enough cabling or nearby connections that we could even get cameras [feeds] back to the control room at all,” Szlamowicz said.

They gave it a shot. On Sunday morning, one of UVA’s engineers, along with several freelance technicians, ran more than 500 feet of cable daisy-chained together from the field hockey stadium and over its blue AstroTurf to a vantage point for the game camera that Chase Williamson, a freelance videographer and former lacrosse player, manned on a cement walkway atop a 20-foot hill next to the practice field. The angle was a little closer to the playing surface than Szlamowicz would have liked, but under the circumstances, he thought it looked pretty good.

By 10:21 a.m., the Virginia men’s lacrosse Twitter account offered an update. The show would go on.

“Oh hell yeah,” one user commented.

Even after the game, which Jason Patterson called from back in the studio off a monitor, the video department’s work was not done. They found out the field hockey team planned to practice the next day, so they had to pull back all the cables and reroute them around the field to broadcast the UVA women’s lacrosse game against East Carolina on Monday.

“It was certainly an interesting 48 hours,” Szlamowicz said.

“For a while there from March to September, we didn’t have the ability to do what we love to do every day,” he added. “So it’s been a lot of volume, but it’s a good problem to have.”

Army bounced back in spectacular fashion with a 18-10 win over Syracuse. The No. 10 Black Knights have built a 6-3 record and locked up the No. 1 seed in the Patriot League’s North Division.

Symptomatic of a season of fits and starts, Army will conclude its regular season tomorrow against Colgate — a game first scheduled for March 13 but postponed after a positive test amongst West Point’s Tier 1 personnel.

“These days, even practices are gifts,” Alberici said. “It so easily can be taken away.”

Kenny DeJohn and Patrick Stevens contributed to this story.