UW-Whitewater’s basketball players were already fairly certain they were going to get to play some games.
Tuesday’s announcement from the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference simply made it official: Sports in the Division III conference are set to return the week of Feb. 1.
After months of practices despite their seasons being up in the air, the Warhawks will now get a chance to compete, albeit under much difference circumstances.
“They’re excited. We really felt like when they (the WIAC) made the announcement in December (that it was aiming for a February start), we felt pretty good that it was going to happen,” UW-W men’s basketball coach Pat Miller said. “So they’ve known that and came back from semester break with a great attitude.
“Obviously there’s more to practice for now. So it’s been good. I think they needed it. They did a great job leading up to this, but as you can imagine, practicing for three or four months straight without any outside competition can get a little cumbersome.”
Like virtually everywhere else in the world, sports at UW-Whitewater came to a halt in mid-March. While Division I college sports have returned with rigorous testing protocols and altered schedules, sports have been slow to come back at the lower collegiate levels.
UW-W’s fall sports have been limited to practices only, with hopes for some kind of abbreviated season this spring.
The winter sports programs have been practicing in hopes they would get at least a return to some sort of competition.
“In early January, before classes started, we’d go an hour of walk-throughs, then they’d lift and then we’d go two hours live on the floor,” Miller said. “That’s something last year we couldn’t have done in a million years. Last year we could barely get through a two-hour practice. But this group is just very focused and learning and it’s been good.”
For basketball, that competition includes breaking the WIAC into two divisions and playing an eight-game regular season before a league tournament that is set to begin March 1. The tournament champion will receive the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Division III tournament, which at this point is still set to begin March 11.
Whitewater will be in the WIAC’s East Division along with UW-Platteville, UW-Stevens Point and UW-Oshkosh. The West Division features Eau Claire, La Crosse, River Falls and Stout.
Teams will play each of their division rivals twice, on Wednesday and Friday of a given week. For instance, the first week of competition, the UW-W men host Stevens Point on Feb. 3 and then return the trip two days later. The fourth week of competition will have each team playing a crossover series against a team from the other division. The Warhawks will take on UW-Stout Feb. 24 and 26.
The abbreviated season will not cost the players a year of eligibility, as the NCAA in October granted fall and winter athletes at all levels an extra year.
“We have 15 freshmen and sophomores, so it’s almost like the greatest, glorified redshirt year ever,” Miller said. “To their credit, they’ve taken advantage of that time.
“One of the things that does make me nervous with a young team is you usually have that progression: get acclimated to practices, some scrimmages, nonconference games ... then conference. Having them thrown into the thralls of Platteville, Point and Oshkosh, it’ll be fun to see how they respond.
“That’s diving right in, for sure. Our division has 17 national championships.”
The Warhawks will have their work cut out for them next month.
But they will be happy just to be back playing games on the basketball court.
Changes for other winter sports
The WIAC announced the return of all its winter sports for Feb. 1, but each—not surprisingly—has major changes.
Men’s and women’s indoor track and field teams can compete in meets until March 6, and the DIII Championships are scheduled to be March 12-13 in Ohio. The WIAC Championship has been canceled.
It’s the same exact scenario for the men’s and women’s swimming and diving teams, with no league championship but the DIII national meet currently set for March 17-20 in Washington.
Wrestlers can compete in dual meets until Feb. 19, but the WIAC Championship has been canceled. UW-Stevens Point is currently scheduled to host the DIII Upper Midwest Regional on Feb. 26-27, with the national championship currently scheduled to be hosted by UW-La Crosse on March 12-13.
Women’s gymnastics can compete until April 3. Both the conference and national championship meets have been canceled.
Men’s and women’s hockey teams will follow a similar model to the basketball teams. UW-Whitewater does not have hockey teams.