On Wednesday, more than 40 community college men’s and women’s soccer teams converge on the Starfire Sports Complex in Tukwila. For two days teams from all corners of the Northwest Athletic Conference (NWAC) will be on the fields from morning to evening for the first official NWAC competitions of the 2021-22 school year.
The soccer friendlies are an example of how community college sports, which were thrown out of whack last school year because of the coronavirus pandemic, are back to something resembling normal. However, they’re also an example of how athletics are still being affected by the pandemic.
The pandemic first hit NWAC athletics in March of 2020, when the basketball championships being held at Everett Community College’s Walt Price Student Fitness Center had to be canceled. The 2020 spring sports season was subsequently wiped out. The 2020-21 season was delayed until February, at which point every sport conducted its season simultaneously. Schedules were shortened, games were limited to opponents from the same region, and no championship events were held.
But NWAC sports, which include the Everett Trojans and Edmonds Tritons, are starting on time this school year. Games against opponents from outside a school’s region are back on the schedule and NWAC championships are back, including the basketball championships which are again slated to take place at Everett.
However, protocols remain in place to protect against the spread of coronavirus, and schools are preparing for potential disruptions.
“Things definitely aren’t fully normal,” Edmonds athletic director Spencer Stark said. “We’re not at pre-COVID athletics yet. We’re still planning and preparing for the changing environment. We understand it’s not a completely normal year, but it’ll be nice to compete for official region and NWAC championships.”
Wednesday’s and Thursday’s soccer friendlies at Starfire Sports illustrate how things aren’t back to normal yet. With hundreds of players, coaches and staff from schools from three different states coming together in one location, protocols are in place to protect against COVID-19. Players are being asked to wear masks except while competing and bringing their own water bottles. Teams are required to arrive at the field as close to kickoff time as possible, then vacate the field immediately upon the completion of the contest so that the benches can be sanitized.
And the league has already experienced its first disruptions, as Stark said he was informed a couple teams were forced to withdraw from the soccer friendlies because of team members testing positive for COVID-19.
So are there any concerns about sending teams to Starfire and keeping them safe?
“That’s always a thought,” said Everett athletic director Garet Studer, who experienced the impact of the pandemic last spring when the Trojan women’s basketball season had to be shut down for two weeks because of contact with an individual who tested positive. “I think with Starfire being such a large complex (NWAC will be using four of the complex’s 12 fields), it’s fairly easy to keep teams isolated to the field they’re playing on.
“What we learned over the past year is how to take those precautions,” Studer continued. “It’s almost the new normal, it’s just what we do. We mask up and get to where we’re going, we don’t really mess around, we get from point A to point B, play the game, have a little team meeting and get out of there.”
One tool NWAC has in its belt this school year that it didn’t have in the spring is vaccinations. NWAC is not requiring that its athletes be vaccinated, but the protocols for athletes who are vaccinated versus those who aren’t are substantially different. Athletes who are vaccinated don’t have to quarantine upon arriving on campus, aren’t required to wear masks during practice, do not have to undergo regular testing, and aren’t required to quarantine after known exposure. Meanwhile, unvaccinated athletes have to shelter in place for seven days upon arrival on campus, must wear masks based on the institution’s policies, are required to undergo regular testing, and are subject to mandatory quarantining after known or potential exposure.
“I think it really comes down to how many athletes we can get vaccinated,” Stark said. “The conference is making a big push where it’s trying to incentivize getting vaccinated. Vaccinated players can have pretty normal seasons.”
The league’s goal is for teams to be at least 70% vaccinated. So far Edmonds’ fall sports teams are way ahead of the curve. Stark said the Tritons’ volleyball team is 100% fully vaccinated, women’s soccer is at 96% and men’s soccer is at 88% — it helps that Edmonds College as a whole has a vaccination requirement for its campus. Everett is also requiring students and employees to be vaccinated, but Studer said its sports teams are currently around the league’s 70% target, though he believes the Food and Drug Administration giving full approval to the Pfizer vaccine Monday will help speed up the process.
Spectators are being allowed at events this school year, with the guidelines determined by each institution. Both Edmonds and Everett are still finalizing their policies, but they’re both expecting spectators to be required to wear masks at indoor events and make efforts to maintain physical distancing.