Brian Ditmer

A rack of jerseys on Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2019, at Houchens-Smith Stadium. (Austin Anthony/photo@bgdailynews.com)

Western Kentucky is the only team in Conference USA not to have a game postponed or canceled due to COVID-19, but Saturday’s contest versus Southern Miss marked the most players or personnel the Hilltoppers have had out through nine games.

A total of 11 players, personnel and staff missed the game against the Golden Eagles after this week’s testing, according to athletic director Todd Stewart.

“Throughout this entire season, everything has really been in two different categories – there’s the area of things that we can control and then there’s the area that we can’t control,” Stewart told the Daily News. “I really feel like in the area we can control, everyone’s done an exceptional job. I think our players and our coaches deserve a tremendous amount of credit for doing everything in their power to play.

“... The part that you can’t control is what leads to some of the frustrations, not just with us, but industrywide, and specifically in the area of contact tracing.”

Of the 11, three were because of positive tests and eight because of contact tracing. The three positive tests were players, with one being one of the two who missed last week’s game against FAU because of a positive test. The remaining eight – six players, one student manager and one student coach – were out from Saturday’s 10-7 win over Southern Miss due to contact tracing.

WKU is not releasing the names of players missing games due to COVID-19 testing or contact tracing. The Barren River Health Department determines contact tracing and makes final decisions on isolation and quarantine protocol.

Stadium’s Brett McMurphy tweeted Saturday that 66 games have been postponed or canceled involving 70 FBS teams, including 12 of the 13 teams in C-USA that have played games – Old Dominion elected before the season not to play this fall.

Stewart believes contact tracing protocols need another look with possible improvements from the NCAA and within Conference USA, like some other leagues have done.

“We have the flexibility to make adjustments in the NCAA and within Conference USA, and with respect to contact tracing, I think it’s something we need to take a hard look at,” Stewart said. “Right now, everybody that’s taking the field for game day has tested negative three times this week. Three negative tests. But you’re still subject to contact tracing, and just the crazy thing is next week we could have guys that have six negative tests, have no symptoms, and yet they’re being quarantined.

“That’s the part of this that I think a rational person looks at this and says, ‘That just doesn’t make sense. How can we look at this and improve it?’ And I guess that’s what I think should happen.”

WKU did not have anybody out through its first six games. Wide receivers coach Chris Chestnut and a graduate assistant coach did not make the trip to BYU on Oct. 31 after COVID-19 testing, a source told the Daily News before the game. The Hilltoppers did not have two players last week at FAU due to a positive test and contact tracing, a source told the Daily News before the game.

The 11 missing Saturday’s game were a season-high, and the Hilltoppers have games versus FIU and at Charlotte remaining the next two weeks.

“All the guys that are missing today’s game that are contact traced, all eight tested negative all three times this week. Under the current guidelines, they could also test negative all three times next week and still not be able to play next weekend,” Stewart said. “They could have tested negative six times in a two-week span, and still not be allowed to play next weekend – that’s the way the current guidelines are.”

Stewart believes the mental health of the student-athletes should also be factored in when making these decisions.

“We have all these mental health committees, mental health webinars and we’re always talking about mental health,” he said. “Well, I think when you take an 18-, 19-, 20-year-old who’s healthy, who has no symptoms, and who’s testing negative repeatedly and you quarantine them for 14 days, I think there’s a mental health component of that, and that’s what concerns me will become a larger issue if we don’t address this.”

On Wednesday, WKU announced programs not currently competing in the fall would cease activities for the remainder of the semester out of caution. Football, track and field and men’s and women’s basketball are still competing or preparing to compete.

The release said that since Aug. 7, WKU’s athletics department has had a 1.7% overall COVID-19 testing positivity rate, including a 0.4% positivity rate over the previous two weeks.

The NCAA pushed back the start of basketball season to Nov. 25. The Hilltoppers are scheduled to open the season in Nebraska at the Golden Window Classic with games Nov. 25 and 26, before playing three games in a bubble-type environment in Louisville. The Lady Toppers have not yet released a nonconference schedule.

Stewart remains optimistic basketball season will begin on time, much like he was with football season, but believes the contact tracing element could play a much larger factor with sports this winter and spring because of roster sizes.

“It’s impacted football – football teams that are missing games, it’s largely because of the contact tracing as much as the positive tests, but you’re dealing with larger numbers in football,” Stewart said. “If you take a 13-player basketball roster, you have one or two positive tests and then six or eight guys sidelined through contact tracing, you can’t play the game. That’ll be all the spring sports, really, and all the high school sports. I just think the contact tracing element is something that is probably the biggest hurdle right now.”{&end}

– Follow sports reporter Jared MacDonald on Twitter @JMacDonaldSport or visit bgdailynews.com.

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