Ohio Northern’s men’s and women’s basketball teams will open their seasons with games against Wilmington tonight.
By Friday’s date last year both of the Polar Bears basketball teams had already played 15 games.
Friday night’s delayed openers are certainly no surprise in a world where COVID-19 is the ultimate schedule maker. And ONU isn’t alone in having to revise its schedules because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This is, without doubt, the most unique and different season I’ve ever been a part of,” said Guy Neal, the men’s basketball coach at Bluffton University for the last 32 seasons.
Among the four area NCAA Division III and NAIA schools, two — Ohio Northern and the University of Northwestern Ohio — did not begin to play winter sports until January and two — Bluffton and Findlay — began their schedules before Jan. 1.
Ohio Northern’s January launch date for winter sports was established in July when the Ohio Athletic Conference’s presidents voted to suspend all sports until 2021.
Some of the teams which played games in November and December did a little creative scheduling when games were canceled because of COVID-19 issues.
Bluffton’s women’s basketball team is 8-1 and four of its wins have been over Manchester College. Its men’s basketball team is 5-0. Three of those wins were over Adrian College and two came against Defiance College.
UNOH plays in the Wolverine Hoosier Athletic Conference, which has nine schools from Michigan, a state which has been hit especially hard by COVID-19 and has had more restrictions in place than many states.
The WHAC and the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference, which includes Bluffton, left the decision to play or not play until the calendar turned to 2021 up to the individual schools.
Some of the WHAC’s schools, including UNOH, did not play basketball until January. Lourdes University, in Toledo, has played five men’s basketball games — two in October and three in January. Its women’s basketball team has played three early games and two in January.
Indiana Tech, located in a state with probably fewer restrictions than Michigan and Ohio, has already played 15 men’s basketball games and 14 women’s basketball games.
The OAC’s return plan includes having no spectators, no family members and no media at its games. Bluffton and UNOH also do not allow fans.
UNOH athletic director Chris Adams says COVID-19 issues have dominated his work schedule since March.
“Every time a UNOH team has an opportunity to participate and compete it’s a small win for me as an athletic director,” he said. “It’s been a very long road to get back into competition in intercollegiate athletics on a somewhat normal basis. Any day you get to play, it’s a win. And not just for basketball, for any sport.”
UNOH’s women’s basketball program faced another unexpected challenge when head coach John McGinty resigned after two games to take a job at Loyola-Chicago. The Racers (4-1) have won two of their three games since assistant coach Jill Segura was promoted to interim coach. UNOH’s men’s team is 0-4.
Neal said, “I feel kind of like we’re already on our fourth or fifth season. The players have been amazing. We’re working very hard to make it as close to a normal, real season as we can.”
Bluffton tests its athletes once a week for COVID-19. Ohio Northern requires three tests per week.
After returning from Christmas break on Dec. 28, ONU’s athletes had to be tested before they could even return to their dorm rooms or to practice.
“That’s the first thing we did. They waited in their cars in the parking lot. We called them in and told them their results and if they could move into their dorms. Thank God everybody was a negative,” Ohio Northern men’s basketball coach Rich Bensman said.
Ohio Northern’s men’s and women’s basketball teams will play a 12-game, conference only schedule, with games scheduled on Friday and Saturday nights against the same team both nights over the next six weeks, followed by the Ohio Athletic Conference tournament.
The men’s team will play at Wilmington on Friday night and play the Quakers at home on Saturday. The women’s team will play Wilmington in Ada on Friday night and go to Wilmington on Saturday.
The men’s team is coming off a 9-16 season and will be trying to improve that record with a roster that has no seniors and only one junior, point guard Brandon Waugh, who averaged 10.6 points a game and led the Polar Bears in assists and steals last season.
C.J. Napier, a 6-foot, 6-inch sophomore, led ONU in scoring (16.3) and rebounding (7.0) last season. Guard Landen Long averaged 11 points a game. Elida’s Daniel Unruh was a starting guard two years ago before sitting out last season.
“It’s a big challenge for us. We have no seniors on the team and one junior. The rest are sophomores and freshmen. For our young team it’s going to be a challenge. But I think our kids understand that,” Bensman said.
ONU’s women’s team, 20-7 last season, will have a new head coach and 11 returning letter winners.
Mark Huelsman, an Ohio Northern assistant the last seven years, took over when Michele Durand became an assistant athletic director.
He says there won’t be a lot of changes in the transition from Durand to him.
“Nothing here was broken. It wasn’t like sweeping changes were needed,” he said.
Guard Lexi Jacobs, from Wapakoneta, who averaged 6.1 points a game, is the only full-time starter back for the Polar Bears. Bath graduate Jaidyn Hale started 12 games last season and averaged 4.9 points a game. Brynn Serbin was the OAC Freshman of the Year last season when she averaged 5.8 points a game but was not a starter.
“I think what our circumstances have done is they’ve brought us even closer together,” Huelsman said about preparing for this season in an unprecedented situation. “There were safety protocols we had to follow. But within the safety protocols that we had to follow we could live fairly regularly.”