WKU wins 20-13 over UAB

Western Kentucky defensive lineman Juwuan Jones (front) sings the fight song with his teammates after WKU’s 20-13 win over UAB on Sept. 28 at Houchens-Smith Stadium.

Todd Stewart is optimistic sports will happen at Western Kentucky in the fall, but knows they won’t look the same as they have in the past due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The school announced Tuesday its first changes to its COVID-19 athletic restart plan, and WKU’s athletic director is confident the university will continue to do whatever is needed the next couple of months for a safe return to competition. Stewart discussed the evolving protocols at WKU and within the NCAA in a Zoom conference with reporters Thursday.

“Their health and their safety will always be the number one priority that we have,” Stewart said. “Hopefully we get to a point where we’re playing games, but we’ll have extensive testing that we’ll be doing on a consistent basis.”

With the second wave of athletes returning to campus July 6 – the first wave featured 65 football players returning June 8 – WKU decided to perform COVID-19 antibody testing on returning student-athletes – a protocol now in place for all student-athletes, coaches and staff making their first arrival to campus between July 4 and the beginning of the fall semester. The statement announcing the change added that testing protocols will remain fluid as the WKU athletics portion of the Big Red Restart Plan is a living document.

According to Tuesday’s statement, there were 293 antibody tests performed – 183 student-athletes and 110 staff – and six returned positive in the antibody testing. Four of those were student-athletes and two were staff members. Each individual with a positive antibody test received a follow-up PCR swab test, and one test – a staff member – returned active asymptomatic positive last week.

Some schools, including those at the Power Five level, have had to shut down workouts temporarily due to active positive tests. Stewart said there is no set number of positive tests right now that would force a shutdown, but the school would instead follow suggestions from medical professionals.

“We haven’t kind of come up with a finite number. Obviously what we will do is adhere to all the state guidelines and certainly take the advice of our medical professionals and do what they tell us to do,” Stewart said. “I think the biggest key is really just the daily monitoring. Anybody who has any symptoms, we’re testing. Anybody who wants a test, we are administering that. We’ll continue to do that.

“We just did extensive antibody testing last week and we’ll do more testing as we move forward. Certainly as we get closer to playing games, we’ll do more testing and obviously if we get in a game week situation ... whatever the minimum that is required, we’ll do that and then some.”

The NCAA on Thursday handed down its latest set of guidelines for returning to competition amid the pandemic. Included in the guidelines, the NCAA said athletes should receive a PCR swab test for all high contact risk sports within 72 hours of competition for football and within 72 hours of the first of the week’s set of games for other high contact risk sports. The NCAA also said “If PCR testing cannot be performed within 72 hours of competition, then the competition should be postponed or canceled, or an alternative plan for testing should be developed and agreed upon.”

“Certainly whatever is required, I feel comfortable in saying we’ll do that and then some. We won’t just do the minimum,” Stewart said. “We will take every precaution that we can in order to make sure that when our players are competing that they’re in a safe situation.”

Stewart did not have an exact cost of antibody testing or projected costs for game-week PCR swab tests at the time of Thursday’s Zoom conference, but stressed its importance. {span style=”text-decoration: underline;”}WKU’s athletic department recently saw over $1 million in budget reductions for the 2020-21 fiscal year and its operating budget is now is at $21.7 million.{/span} The average operating budget in C-USA is roughly $27.5 million.

“There is a cost,” Stewart said. “We’ve got really good medical providers here in Bowling Green that are working with us on that. That’s a question I’ll be able to specifically answer down the line a little bit. I don’t know exactly, but they’ve been great partners. They know the importance of this and the importance of quick and timely results. Whatever it is, we’ll be able to make that work. That’s obviously vitally important to any of this happening.”

Stewart said there has been “no apprehension in our locker room at all” from those returning to campus, which is one of the reasons for his optimism that there will be a fall season.

The second wave of athletes that returned featured the remainder of the football team, as well as the women’s soccer team and the volleyball team. The men’s and women’s basketball teams returned July 9. The remainder of teams are scheduled to return the following dates:

  • July 20 – Cheerleading
  • Aug. 14 – Men’s Golf
  • Aug. 17 – Women’s Golf
  • Aug. 18 – Cross Country
  • Aug. 22 – Track and Field
  • Aug. 22 – Softball
  • Aug. 22 – Baseball
  • Aug. 22 – Tennis

The school’s original athletic restart plan did not include testing for asymptomatic student-athletes, and only those with symptoms had a test performed, unless the student-athlete requested a test to be administered. WKU will continue to perform testing on any individual who shows or reports symptoms, as well as those who request testing.

WKU has put preventive measures in place to help student-athletes returning stay healthy. Masks are required and temperature checks are done on those entering athletic facilities. Equipment is cleaned after it is used, and numbers for workout groups are limited to 10 or fewer.

“We’ve got outstanding medical care here. They’re actually, in my opinion, much safer here on our campus than they are if they’re home, in terms of their access to outstanding medical people and protocol,” Stewart said.

“We have changed the way we do things here from a cleanliness standpoint. The amount of attention that’s really been given to every aspect of our athletics – we didn’t have a problem before, but I feel like they’ve never been in a safer environment in terms of their daily interactions with each other right now. We will continue that.”{&end}

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

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