GC men, women get set for Panhandle 'gauntlet' on heels of COVID pause
At the start of the week, both the Gulf Coast men's and women's teams were prepping for a huge Panhandle Conference showdown at the Billy Harrison Field House against Chipola.
Unfortunately for the Commodores, a rash of positive COVID tests within the program forced both teams to postpone Wednesday's game until Monday, Jan. 17. With a Saturday road trip to Tallahassee and two other games next week against Northwest Florida State and Pensacola State, the Commodores are now slated to play four games over the course of seven days.
"It's a gauntlet," Gulf Coast women's coach Rory Kuhn said. "You've just got to get through it. It is what it is. You show up and get ready for whatever gets thrown at you and tackle it the best you can."
Kuhn said he expected to have all of his players available for Saturday's game, with the last of the players who went into COVID protocols scheduled to return on game day. While the Commodores will technically be full strength, they'll also be playing a crucial conference road game without having a single practice with their full team for the last week.
How does a coach prepare for such a big game, which is just two days before another big game, under circumstances such as these?
"Your guess is as good as mine," Kuhn said. "I don't know, this is a brand new one. It's what, year three of going on with this COVID stuff? Everything is just crazy. It's always something new thrown at you. There's no playbook for it, there's no manual, you've just got to figure it out as it comes. To be honest I don't know how you prepare for it. You just do what you can and hope when the ball goes up in the air that you're ready for it."
'More than enough'
The Gulf Coast men will also have everyone out of protocols by Saturday's game, though coach Phil Gaffney said he still wasn't sure if everyone who returns would actually play on game day.
"I think we'll have just about everybody," he said. "There might be some that don't feel good. That's the thing you don't know, you might have some come off of COVID protocol but won't feel good and may not play, but we'll have more than enough to play."
Gulf Coast has been practicing with a skeleton crew of just a handful of players, the ones who had not tested positive or had close contact with someone who did, but for those who won't get to practice in the week between games, Gaffney said there will be concerns about just how much they can give the team Saturday.
"We had seven guys who can't practice because either they have COVID or have contact and aren't vaccinated, if those seven guys lost some of their conditioning and the ones who had COVID, are they gonna be OK to actually play or be out for a while? I don't know. I can see where you come off COVID protocol and just not be ready to go.
"It's really hard. We've got a crazy stretch coming up. When you go to a Saturday to Monday to Wednesday to Saturday, if they're not in shape they'll get back into shape real quick."
Fighting for position
With No. 4 Northwest Florida State (3-0 in the conference) and No. 9 Chipola (2-1) widely seen as the favorites on the men's side to occupy the top two spots in the Panhandle Conference that would assure a spot in the state tournament, Saturday's game between 1-1 Gulf Coast and 1-2 Tallahassee could play a big role in who ultimately ends up in the top three with a chance to play in the postseason.
A win would put the Commodores two games clear in the loss column of both the Eagles and Pensacola State (0-3) with one head to head win over each. It certainly won't be easy, however, with the Eagles playing Northwest Florida State tough and holding a first-half lead before falling 64-55 in their only conference home game so far.
"They're good," Gaffney said of the Eagles. "They played Northwest very tough. They've got a great record (16-5), they know what they're doing. They probably don't have as much talent as they had last year, but they'll still be formidable. It's tough because I think anybody can beat anybody in this league so we're all going to be fighting to be in the top two. Top three you probably go to state, but if you're top two you definitely go to state so that's what we all want. That's where we're trying to position ourselves.
"But they're a good team. They're talented, they've got some kids back from last year that played very well, some good recruits that came in, they'll definitely be one of the teams fighting for a top two or three spot."
A 'must-win' situation
In the women's game, Gulf Coast finds itself desperately in need of a victory following an 0-2 start featuring a close home loss to top-ranked Northwest Florida State and a devastating overtime defeat at the hands of No. 9 Pensacola State in which the Commodores surrendered a six-point lead with a minute left in regulation.
With three games scheduled next week against teams ranked in the top 16 in the nation, to say it's imperative that the Commodores avoid falling to 0-3 in the league would be an understatement.
With the Eagles (3-15 overall, 0-2 in the league) coming in on a seven-game losing streak having lost their first two Panhandle games to Northwest and Chipola by a combined margin of 65 points, this isn't a game that the Commodores can afford to lose.
"I know they've struggled when you look at the record, but if you fall asleep in the Panhandle Conference against anybody, regardless of their record, you can lose," Kuhn said. "This isn't the best way to get ready for what is essentially a 'must-win' game, but we'll take care of the things that we can control and just go out and try to take care of business."