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Mendenhall, UVA looking at COVID-19 protocols

uva footballRemember when several UVA football players went to social media to take the Virginia Tech program to task for a mini-COVID-19 outbreak that forced the postponement of their Sept. 19 season opener?

Those kinds of things can tend to come back and bite you.

Cue the report sent to news media about an hour out of the scheduled kickoff at Clemson Saturday night.

Seven players and an assistant coach out after COVID testing.

It was, at first, a shock, a body blow.

“We’d just gone from cheering after every test since early July, and when I found out, and it was late, it was late in the week, and I announced to the team that we had a number of tests, there was like silence, and it sounded funny saying it, and the team looked like, wait, did he just say that we had some positives, and then no one quite knew what to do,” coach Bronco Mendenhall said Monday.

“It was definitely kind of a shock,” senior offensive lineman Dillon Reinkensmeyer said. “Not having any positive cases for so long, you kind of feel like you’re a little invincible, but you kind of realize that this virus doesn’t have favorites.”

A virus, indeed, is going to virus.

“I mean, it’s a pandemic,” senior cornerback De’vante Cross said. “At the same time, it’s different from what we’ve been hearing. But it’s expected. You’ve got to be prepared. It wasn’t like some big shock. It’s a virus. There are, like, 125 people on the team, and at some point, somewhere along the line, someone was going to get it. I think we handled it very well.”

Which is to say, the virus didn’t seem to impact the way the Cavaliers played in the 41-23 loss to the top-ranked Tigers in prime time on Saturday night.

Virginia, a 27.5-point underdog, was in the game into the fourth quarter, getting big games from quarterback Brennan Armstrong (270 yards passing, 89 yards rushing, three TDs), wideout Billy Kemp IV (10 catches, 96 yards), linebacker Nick Jackson (12 tackles).

This is to the credit of the kids, who kept their focus on the task at hand.

“We were focused on the game. We weren’t thinking about COVID, or thinking about anything else at that point,” Cross said. “When the kick off started, we were ready to play the game. And that’s what was our focus. You can’t focus on anything else. Because football isn’t as simple as it seems watching it on TV. It’s a very difficult game. You’ve got to understand your assignments, what you’re doing, what you’re facing. That’s where your focus has to be. If you’re split, if your focus is split, you’re not going to be able to perform the way you want.”

Reality check

Cross might have undersold the impact on the pregame prep. Mendenhall said the offense went through four or five additional walkthroughs after the results were known, in addition to the defensive group’s extra meetings to address the loss of personnel.

It’s hard to say, though, that COVID played a role in the final outcome.

It’s an easier bet that the focus shifted postgame to COVID, and what the program needs to do to avoid missing guys in future game weeks.

“We went so long without a positive test, I almost think that we possibly considered it wasn’t going to affect our program. You know, somehow we were going to be the team that it just wasn’t going to hit. And then last week’s testing, sure enough, here were some positives and all of us, I think we’re tightening down our masks and spacing out a little more,” Mendenhall said.

The coach had treated himself as Chief COVID-19 Compliance Officer during training camp, and he conceded Monday that he’s engaged in a top-down review of procedures and protocols.

The challenge is fighting the unknown.

“There’s an old time saying in warrior cultures: it’s hard to fight something until you can name it. And right now it’s like okay, it’s positive, but how come,” Mendenhall said. “We don’t know how come, and the cases we have were different. They don’t know, which is even more alarming. Our meals are grab-and-go. We’re adding new protocols this week. Again, just based on what I’ve learned and how the contact tracers deem someone else, how they might be vulnerable, then that helps me understand the virus at a higher level. But still, what I don’t know is anyone that tested positive, how did they get it. And until I know that, it’s hard to target what exactly to do about it. So, yeah, I feel vulnerable, which is maybe just how this works.”

One thing Mendenhall is taking into account is something he learned from the contact tracers.

“Testing positive is one thing, but you can actually lose significantly more players through contact tracing than just the positive test,” the coach said. “That’s really a test of the protocol. I’m looking hard at redesigning and putting new best practices or new practices in place right now. In fact, after I’ve learned from the contact tracing questions and how that’s working and things, we might be able to mitigate maybe some effects of that in the future. Because, let’s face it, the thought that it could or will happen again, I would have to say that’s likely when you have this many people doing the same things daily and having the contact we are even as effectively as we’ve done it.

“Yeah, I still am learning and will work to apply and try to give us – try to mitigate it the best we can. After I’ve now seen what this kind of looks like a little closer than just from hearing about other programs.”

The program had already gone to the level of not allowing players access to the second floor of the McCue Center, where coaches’ offices are located, and even now, heading into the third week of the season, staff meetings are still being held by Zoom.

And dating back to early July, team meetings are held in the indoor practice facility, with screens set up to enforce distancing.

“Our indoor facility is home base for us, and our measures have been again so, so effective, and they held really well, even through school and students coming back,” Mendenhall said.

Among the changes in store for this week: adding lockers, possibly dividing the team into different locker room spaces, as Mendenhall had done for bus travel to Memorial Stadium for Saturday night’s game.

“We probably hired out every bus that company had when we were at Clemson, and there’s like six people per bus, it seemed so obsessive,” Mendenhall said.

“We’re trying to do the same thing with every space we have and just make sure there’s enough area in between,” Mendenhall said. “So, we’re adding lockers, and we’re dividing the team, even more in terms of sequencing of who comes in and when they come in based on class prioritization. There’s waiting, and there’s quick showers, and there’s in-and-out, and there’s not much camaraderie. That’s getting ready to happen at a higher level. That’s kind of the direction that we’re headed.”

Psychic impact

The news definitely got everybody’s attention.

“During the team meeting chairs started to move farther away from teammates. I mean, it was happening in real time, where maybe over time we’ve been kind of shrinking and, we have this handled, and man, as soon as I announced it, coaches masks were tightening, and guys were moving,” said Mendenhall, noting that he has upgraded his own facial covering since.

“As you can see, my mask, I mean, the virus is going to have to come with a drill to get through this thing, because it’s hard to breathe,” Mendenhall told reporters via Zoom.

There’s a new sense of urgency around the program to get things right.

“We’ll be on our game every week,” Reinkensmeyer said. “As Coach TJ (offensive line coach Garett Tujague) says, there’s two game that get played every week. There’s, how did you get to the game, and then the actual game. I think that kind of was a bit of a reality check, and that we know that this is a real thing. So, we have to completely be on guard for it.”

Story by Chris Graham

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