CWU vs Alaska Fairbanks

Alaska Fairbanks head coach Greg Sparling looks on as Central Washington University’s Micah Pollard (32) dribbles against Alaska Fairbanks’ Spencer Sweet (11) last season in the Nicholson Pavillion.

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Four teams; no fans; and no conference or Division II championship to compete for.

No problem.

College basketball amid a global pandemic? Head coach Greg Sparling and his Alaska Fairbanks Nanooks will take it.

“I’m just glad we got an opportunity to play in January,” said the former Central Washington University coach, who spoke on the Kittitas Valley Sports Talk podcast Wednesday afternoon.

An opportunity that only four Great Northwest Athletic Conference teams decided to take.

Fairbanks, Northwest Nazarene, St. Martin’s and Seattle Pacific are vying in a conference-only slate that begins Jan. 15 and 16. GNAC teams will play games on consecutive days against the same opponent in the same location, with games played on Fridays and Saturdays. The men’s and women’s schedules will mirror each other, with two competing schools playing each other on the same dates at opposite locations.

Central Washington University, where Sparling spent 24 seasons as head coach, opted out of the 2020-21 season along with Alaska Anchorage, Simon Fraser, Western Washington, Western Oregon and Montana State Billings.

“I didn’t honestly know which way we were going to go,” Sparling said. “But I know our administration is pro athletics. …”

The NCAA updated its return-to-sport guidelines that include considerations specific to the prevention of community spread of COVID-19, reclassification of transmission risk of sport based on emerging information, and COVID-19 testing and masking for athletes, officials and other Tier 1 personnel (highest exposure tier and consists of student-athletes, coaches, athletic trainers and physical therapists, medical staff, equipment staff and officials).

Other considerations in the document include: Differentiating outdoor from indoor sport; testing strategies that include use of PCR testing, or antigen testing that is performed with a regular cadence, as the standard testing methods for high transmission risk indoor sports; updated cardiac and exercise considerations for athletes who have developed COVID-19; updated travel considerations; considerations for discontinuation of athletics.

For a high transmission risk sport such as basketball, Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) or antigen testing needs to be administered three times a week on non-consecutive days during the regular and postseason.

Lots of logistics went into mitigating the spread of coronavirus, but Sparling is elated regardless of the challenges COVID-19 has presented among college sports.

“It’s a motivation that you get an opportunity to play,” he said. “… We’ll go back to back (Fridays and Saturdays), limit our costs, limit our exposure out there. Yeah, we have to fly, but I think they’re (GNAC) doing a smart thing playing back to back and get us in and out. There will be more testing than we know what to do with.”

“I’m excited to get going,” Sparling later added. “It’s going to be a lot different, it’s probably going to be more challenging, but you know what, it’s an opportunity. I don’t want to sit out another 365 days before we play our next game.”

For Sparling, coaching and playing games amid a global pandemic was sufficient. But now coaching his son, Coleman, for one more season makes the season even more sentimental.

Coleman, an Ellensburg graduate (2016), played for two seasons at CWU for his dad (one as a redshirt) before transferring to College of Southern Idaho after Greg’s contract was not renewed at the end of CWU’s 2017-18 campaign. After CSI, Coleman transferred to Division I University of Texas Arlington in the Sun Belt Conference where he finished his undergrad.

So, with one year of eligibility remaining for the 6-foot-7 forward, he announced on Twitter in August he was finishing his collegiate career at Alaska Fairbanks.

“Unfinished business with Pops,” Coleman tweeted with a graphic of him in an Alaska jersey with the No. 23. “Senior season back in the GNAC.”

“It’s definitely a coach’s dream to have your son play for you,” Greg said. “We got cut short on our first opportunity and then he took his journey down to CSI, had a great experience and went down to Texas and didn’t have such a good experience. It was hard to watch and as a dad and a coach. Now, we’ll basically have a season and a half together and then the next chapter of his life will start.

“I couldn’t be more excited to have the opportunity to coach him and spend a lot of quality time with him before he leaves the nest for good.”

Fairbanks slipped in as the No. 6 seed last year with a 10-10 GNAC record and defeated No. 3 Western Oregon in the first round before losing to eventual champions Western Washington in the subsequent round.

The Nanooks are returning its top guard in Shadeed Shabazz, one of the most electrifying players in the GNAC on both sides of the balls. In his first season with Fairbanks as a junior, Shabazz averaged 26.6 points a game (fourth-most in D2) and shot .466% from the field. Shabazz was named a unanimous first-team All-GNAC selection, first-team All-West Region selection by the D2CCA and NABC and a third-team All-America by the D2CCA. He was the 2019-20 GNAC player of the year, GNAC co-defensive player of the year and GNAC newcomer of the year.

Fairbanks opens its season at Seattle Pacific on Jan. 15 and 16.

Luke Olson: lolson@kvnews.com; on Twitter: @lukeolsonb

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