Before the season came to an end in March, Director of Track and Field Andy Sythe was certain his long distance team would have a breakout year.
“We’ve been trying to see ourselves grow there and develop,” Sythe said. “Last weekend of February, we were seeing tremendous improvement. It started clicking. This is the missing piece and we have a couple of distance runners that can make the difference for us.”
Less than a week after its first meet of the season, the Beach track and field team was told to go home on March 7. The evolving threats of coronavirus that forced a worldwide quarantine meant National Collegiate Athletic Association President Mark Emmert and the board of governors had to cancel all remaining championships.
According to Sythe, long distance and cross country head coach Shawn Winget took it as a positive sign of guidance. Winget took the negative situation of a canceled season and told his runners to prepare for a cross country season of their lives in the fall.
“I worked so hard over the summer,” women’s runner Ryley Fick said. “I was in the middle of a run when we got the message. In the middle of training, all of a sudden, the season is canceled.”
Fick’s focus went from the 2020 cross country season to “a period of confusion,” she said, following a socially distanced meeting with the team at the Walter Pyramid that ended with more questions than answers.
“How fast it happened… it just felt like ‘bam,’” said Raymon Ornelas, a top finisher in Winget’s men’s team in last season’s NCAA West Regionals. “From one day to the next it was all gone, our season was over.”
Before that chaotic day, Winget had set the team up with a 10-week preseason program that began in June. The plan was set up to prepare the team for fall’s first practice Monday, Aug. 17. Winget said that program is now turning into a 50-week plan that might drag into 2021.
For Winget, it’s a “painful situation as a coach” because he’s noticed the improvement in his athletes.
Despite the season’s unpredictable future, the set of juniors are eager to get back to competing. Without a season to train for, Ornelas suggested that now is the time for the Beach to stay focused and work harder than ever.
“I think a lot of it is hope, knowing a season will come around,” Ornelas said. “Some people think, ‘Ah no season.’ This is the right time for us to get ahead of them.”
According to Long Beach State athletic director Andy Fee, every other program’s season lingers on whether the university can get proper funding to secure rapid testing and mitigate possible coronavirus outbreaks. Without this, Fee doesn’t think even reduced group practices are an option.
“In reality we’re trying to mitigate and reduce transmission as much as possible,” Fee said. “Rapid testing is the answer, in my opinion.”
Fee said that with the provision of rapid testing, and negative test results from each program, the Los Angeles County Department of Health is more likely to clear the university for on-campus, socially distanced practices.
If the university is able to secure approval, Fee said, Winget will be able to have cohorts of six runners at a time. He will have to give the same speech multiple times as his 31-athlete roster means at least five clusters will form. The runners will also have to stay with the same five runners for the remainder of socially distant practices.
Luckily for Winget and his squad, returning to cross country practice may not be as difficult as it may be for other sports. Cross country is an outdoor sport with very little-to-no contact and no ball in use. Still, things remain up in the air.
These “unchartered waters,” according to Winget, have only been compounded by the news that his wife, Lynn, is due with a baby in December.
“I think it has added some positivity to the team,” Winget said. “That not everything is ugly right now.”