When their alarms rang out before 6 a.m. today, UW-Whitewater’s football players likely were not groaning, and they almost certainly did not hit the “snooze” button.
The Warhawks had a practice to get to.
And while it was not a session to prepare for a Saturday date with UW-Oshkosh—as the original schedule called for—it did mark an opportunity to feel some semblance of normalcy during a fall unlike any other.
“Just being around the guys is so damned exciting,” UW-Whitewater head coach Kevin Bullis said Thursday. “They’ve spent since March 20 in mom and dad’s basement or in their room, in a world of seclusion.
“Obviously we’re functioning safe, and everyone’s wearing masks and there are protocols we’ve got to follow. But we’re together, and that’s awesome. They’re not running around and high-fiving, but they’re having a heckuva lot of fun being together.
“I think that’s something we’ve all learned, that maybe we took that for granted: being together. We don’t now, I can tell you that.”
Division III college football is at a standstill amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference has announced there will be no games for any sports until Jan. 1, 2021, at the earliest.
But the Warhawks returned to football practice, with safety restrictions and protocols, at the start of this week.
The team is split in half for two separate practices, Bullis said, and the players and coaches wear masks.
The team practiced Monday, Wednesday and today this week.
“We’re really kind of approaching this session like it’s the spring ball we missed,” said Bullis, referring to the cancellation of spring camp because sports around the world shut down almost entirely in March and April.
“We can use helmets and shoulder pads, but we aren’t beating up the kids. We don’t want this to be practicing full-go, five days a week like you do during a season. We wanted it to be a developmental time.”
The Warhawks have been working out in small groups for about a month.
Prior to this week, they were limited to getting together for strength and conditioning sessions and doing drills only within their position groups.
“They were able to work out in the weight room, and then we did conditioning on the field and they would work with their position coach on position-specific drills,” Bullis said. “It was really the basics and fundamentals.”
The NCAA is allowing for 114 days between coaches and players amidst the pandemic. As Bullis noted, his UW-W team reached the Division III national title game a year ago and played 15 games, and they didn’t even have 114 days of contact during that span.
“The NCAA has given us a lot of latitude ... which is just outstanding,” Bullis said.
There is still some hope that the Warhawks and other Division III teams might be able to play a short season this spring. The NCAA has ruled that players will not lose a year of eligibility if that possibility becomes a reality.
“It’s ultimately up to our conference to define it for us,” Bullis said. “Our conference could narrow it down. They could say three games. They could say only scrimmages.”
Bullis is well-known at this point for not allowing those within his program to focus on things they cannot control—like what the spring might look like in terms of football.
So for now the Warhawks are focused on the present ... and early-morning alarms.
“I can’t control when we might play again, but I can control that we get to practice at 6:20 (Friday) morning,” Bullis said. “It’s actually a lot of fun. The other days we practice in the afternoon, but we’ve had a bit of a tradition in our springs to have a 6:20 a.m. practice.
“And we’ll make sure it’s a dang-good practice.”