EDINBURG — As UTRGV prepares to begin its phase-by-phase return of its international and domestic student-athletes in late July and early August, the Vaqueros’ athletic department is starting to put policies into place to anticipate their arrival after months of continuous and ongoing internal conversations about how to adapt to the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic, which has shook the Rio Grande Valley in recent weeks.

UTRGV Vice President and Director of Athletics Chasse Conque recently detailed the athletic department’s plan to bring its international student-athletes back to the Valley for two weeks of on-campus, self-isolation in late July and/or early August, with plans for domestic student-athletes to self-isolate at home for seven days before another three-day, self-isolation period when they return to the school’s Edinburg campus.

The major difficulties for Conque and Vaquero coaches and athletic department staff now is figuring out how to safely prepare for their arrival and every aspect of the resumption of day-to-day campus life for Division I college athletes.

“Originally when we started looking at this plan, the first thing we were looking at was how do we get our athletes back to training after the long layoff, and that’s part of the reason why we’re going to do some of the workouts that we’re going to do at lower volumes and lower intensities just because most of (our student-athletes) haven’t had access to a gym at all,” said UTRGV Athletics head strength and conditioning coach Lucas Monroe, who added that the biggest difficulty for his staff so far has been crafting workout plans for student-athletes with a significant disparity in access to equipment.

“The real difficulty is just what everybody has. We’ve added more options for weight workouts, but a lot of the stuff we’ve really focused on is conditioning they can do anywhere like running,” Monroe said. “We’ve also kind of increased our plyometric drills that, again, our athletes don’t need any equipment for. That’s been a big part of it.”

UTRGV also plans to maintain many of the digital initiatives catering to online classes, virtual advising and training which have proved invaluable both during the spring semester and the summer layoff.

UTRGV Deputy Athletic Director Molly Castner said the Vaqueros’ athletic department will continue to incorporate virtual tutoring and academic advising to its programming throughout the 2020-21 school year and beyond after the UTRGV athletic department smashed several of its own program-wide academic records.

Monroe was also quick to point out how crucial UTRGV’s virtual capabilities have been in keeping its student-athletes around the world conditioned and connected with coaches and athletic department staff.

“We’re fortunate that we have an online program that we can push all the workouts to them that they get on their cell phones, and they’re very interactive with videos and stuff and you can see if they’re completing them or not completing them. They can easily send us a simple text through the app if they have questions on it,” Monroe said. “We basically try to give them something to do every single day, so we even have a day where they can do yoga that’s just a YouTube video, but you don’t need anything.”

But as student-athletes begin to return to campus, the problems confronting Conque, Monroe and the entire Vaqueros athletics department posed by the escalating COVID-19 outbreak continue to evolve.

“If you’re looking at how you can train and socially distance, the strength and conditioning piece and getting our student-athletes back into game-ready type conditioning, that’s something we feel like we can control. It’s when you get to the season (that’s concerning),” Conque said.

“It doesn’t matter what sport it is — the travel to get there, the event itself, the post-meet or post-game, all those things are very common regardless of the interaction that happens on the playing surface. But we do feel that over the next month or two as we bring our student-athletes back and as Lucas (Monroe) and his staff starts working with them, those are the things we feel good about that we can control.”

For Monroe and the rest of the Vaqueros athletic trainers and strength and conditioning staff, the primary area of concern has moved away from what equipment athletes have access to and the kinds of workouts they can all do.

Now, their focus has shifted toward maximizing athletes’ training time and minimizing the risk of cross contamination.

“The biggest constraints as far as when they come back are how many we can get into the weight room and see what kind of shape they’re in. We’re going to first look at bigger indoor facilities or outside to keep those groups as spaced out as possible,” Monroe said.

“We’ve set up some protocols on how they’re going to enter the weight room and have areas designated off where they’re going to do their entire workout in that area and have specific equipment in that area so they don’t have to go to another part of the weight room and use another piece of equipment, so whatever they have in that area is all they’re going to use and there won’t be any kind of cross contamination from another athlete.”

Monroe and his staff have reorganized all the athletic department workout and weight lifting areas and also marked off individual workout stations with tape on the floor to optimize space and social distancing practices during training sessions.

Despite differences in how specific sports are played during competition, like basketball and cross country for example, Monroe stressed that the training for all UTRGV’s student-athletes, regardless of their sport, upon their return would look very similar.

The biggest impact UTRGV’s changes will have on specific sports will instead be predominantly based upon differences in training time for different teams in a constrained environment.

“We’re going to work with all the coaches to probably fit about two workouts per week (per team). With around 300 athletes, we’re looking at having about 10 groups a day of 12 kids (each), so how that works out is still up in the area because you have to look at class and practice times,” Monroe said.

“There’s going to probably be an option for baseball or basketball guys to go get a third workout in at the rec center around their schedule. We’ll be able to push that to them through our software that we use, but the limitation is going to be the amount of athletes that we can safely train toward the limitations of how many people you can have in a room.”

amcculloch@themonitor.com