How the Lady Bulldogs are handling Covid-19 protocols to limit potential issues

Georgia opens its season Nov. 25 at Mercer, but many teams have already cancelled games. The Lady Bulldogs are implementing an extensive set of precautions with hopes of avoiding it.

ATHENS, Ga. — Joni Taylor has immense excitement about the upcoming season that tips off in a matter of days. Her heart breaks at the same time.

Georgia’s head coach has seen a domino effect of season-opening basketball games get canceled. They’re happening in bunches. SEC foes Tennessee and Vanderbilt had to delay their start. Kennesaw State, a local program, couldn’t play against Presbyterian on Wednesday.

All programs awaited the official tip-off on Nov. 25. For some, it won’t happen on time due to Covid-19 issues — either a positive test or unavailable players due to contact tracing. At least 15 Division I women’s basketball games scheduled for Wednesday have been canceled or postponed. The second contest for Georgia’s men’s basketball team, slated for Sunday, faced cancellation due to a positive test within the Gardner-Webb program and the Bulldogs are searching for a replacement team.

“My heart goes out to everyone dealing with that pivot,” Taylor said Monday.

In 2020, it’s all up in the air. Everything is subject to change. Basketball rosters are small and seemingly the potential for a postponement or cancellation is inevitable. The Lady Bulldogs have steered clear of positive results to this point, Taylor said.

Each polymerase chain reaction (PCR) Covid-19 test makes everyone hold their breath. Georgia is scheduled to travel to Macon on Wednesday and open against Mercer (6 p.m., ESPN+), and the team’s first three games — including Georgia Tech (Nov. 29) amd East Carolina (Dec. 3) — are away from home. The final six games of non-conference play, beginning Dec. 6, are inside Stegeman Coliseum.

“From a health standpoint, I’m happy to get our three road games out of the way,” Taylor said. “We can nestle in and be at home for the rest of our non-conference schedule. It allows us to keep our bubble tight.”

For now, things are a go. Georgia has three tests per week, with the last coming within 72 hours of the next game.

“I'm grateful to have an opportunity to play as of today,” Taylor said. “I hope we can get to Wednesday and that remains the same.”

Georgia has managed Covid-19 from the moment it struck the sports world in March. The Lady Bulldogs handled an abrupt end to their 2019-20 campaign. The offseason had a different feel with virtual meetings and the lack of face-to-face interaction for a program that thrives on it. The players returned to campus in June and had to split up the team during on-court workouts for a few months.

It has been a whirlwind. Point guard Gabby Connally admitted to not being certain whether she would get a senior season as positive case numbers rose over the summer months. Georgia feels gratitude, but also has to cling to each detail when navigating through its 25-game slate.

Taylor’s group will strictly follow protocols put in place by the SEC, NCAA and have some self-imposed guidelines to follow. It’ll look and feel different, but it’s the only way the sport lives on through a tumultuous year.

“We trust in our trainers and staff to help us stay safe,” senior guard Que Morrison said.

Georgia ramped up its testing frequency over the last two weeks. The athletes, among multiple sports, enter Stegeman Coliseum three times per week for the dreaded swab test. Those being tested at the highest frequency are considered “Tier 1” and can sit on the bench or in a so-called box where the person can join the team during stoppages of play — more on that in a second.

Before the previous two weeks, the Lady Bulldogs were tested once per week.

“We know the testing officials by name these days,” Taylor said. “They’ve become a part of our family.”

Along with testing, Georgia is trusting in KINEXON GPS trackers to help with contact tracing. It’s a luxury of modern technology as chips can be used to see precisely how close a player, coach or official was to someone who tested positive for Covid-19.

The chips, known as SafeTags, are wearable devices that are currently being used among the 14 SEC institutions in football. League commissioner Greg Sankey called it a “modern and effective solution.” The trackers can also be used to enforce physical distancing and flash a red light within six feet of another person.

Georgia is required to use the devices during SEC play, but will also use throughout the non-conference schedule. Taylor realizes the objective is to avoid an outbreak and avoid quarantining if there’s a positive test on Georgia’s or an opponent’s attending party.

“We'll provide them for our opponent along with ourselves and the officials,” Taylor said. “Everyone who is on the game floor will wear these devices.”

Georgia head coach Joni Taylor during the Bulldogs’ practice session at Stegeman Coliseum in Athens, Ga., on Thursday, Oct. 28, 2020. (Photo by Tony Walsh)

The biggest change for players and observers will likely be how Georgia sets up its bench. The SEC protocol is elaborate and takes multiple measures to ensure safety. The non-conference games might have differing guidelines, but Taylor said the NCAA protocols are similar. Each team had to sign a contract agreeing to protocols before scheduling a non-conference game.

Come Dec. 6 when Georgia hosts Oklahoma, Stegeman Coliseum will look different. Some of these will likely be in play for the first three games at Mercer, Georgia Tech and East Carolina, too. Taylor highlighted some of the changes, and it’ll create a bubble-like atmosphere similar to what the NBA and WNBA executed during their seasons.

  • There will be 22 seats on the bench. They must be six feet apart for social distancing. They are assigned to one person and cannot be changed throughout the course of a game.

  • The seat number varies for non-conference road games, but 22 will be in effect for all SEC competition.

  • Georgia moved its sideline to the opposite side of the court, therefore away from the scorer’s table. Some staffers are not in the Tier 1 testing category, therefore not three times a week, so the move allows the Lady Bulldogs to “protect the bubble,” Taylor said.

  • Men’s basketball coach Tom Crean said “it’ll look completely different” and the benches are diagonal from the original designation. The 22 seats are stacked in rows of six across, six behind it, two on the baseline and two behind those.

  • There’s a box, known as the “yellow box” because it’s yellow on Taylor’s sheet of paper, where extra members in Tier 1 can sit away from the bench. They cannot be with the team at all times, but can move back-and-forth from the bench during timeouts and other stoppages of play. Assumedly, this could include managers and other team members.

  • Crean added that the box can include eight people can be in the Tier 1 ‘yellow box.’ It is located on the other side of the basket.

  • Georgia has practiced these arrangements with three intrasquad scrimmages inside Stegeman Coliseum.

“We've been able to play around what that looks like and what we're comfortable with as staff and players,” Taylor said. “This keeps us in the bubble, so that's something you'll see different in Stegeman Coliseum.”

For good measure, Georgia has implemented a guideline of its own. The hope is to minimize touch. This step to help mitigate the spread of Covid-19 takes time to learn and execute. Instead of the usual high-five, the Lady Bulldogs will result to pats on the back and elbow bumps.

Those “positive touches” from teammate to teammate have been counted in years past, Taylor said. Now, it’ll require a new method.

“That's hard for us,” Taylor said. “That's something we have taught our team to do, so we still have to get those reinforcements without touching.”

The adjustments for the coaches and program administration have called for tireless work and hours of meetings. A level of exhaustion probably set in when trying to apply new protocols and decipher how they make things different from a normal routine.

That work is put in so the players don’t have to keep safety glued to their minds. They’re recruited to play basketball, so that’s their main objective.

Georgia’s season is on. There’s an abundance of excitement with a veteran roster, but also caution.

“We're not trying to think about Covid. Of course it's important,” Morrison said. “We want to be out there, we want to play and we don't want anybody to test positive. We still have our season to go. We have to have our mind where it needs to be — on our next opponent.”