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CHAMPAIGN — Sports could be making a return to the University of Illinois campus before too long.

On Friday morning, the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics at Illinois announced that beginning in early June, on a voluntary basis, student-athletes will be able to begin coming back to campus to participate in drills and get ready for their respective seasons.

However, the scope of the return comes with some restrictions, considering the COVID-19 pandemic that continues to grip the nation.

According to Athletic Director Josh Whitman, who met with the media on Friday afternoon via video conferencing call, there are stages where this return will take place.

“I like to think of this situation as being in three stages, with the first part of the pandemic being the retreat stage. The part of this that we are just wrapping up has been the regroup stage, and what we will see take place over the next few weeks as student-athletes begin to return to campus in small numbers is what I like to refer to as the advanced stage,” Whitman said regarding the different levels of preparation that have been taken to get to this point.

Student-athletes from football and men’s basketball will be some of the first people back on campus, and that is primarily because of the training that those teams do to prepare for their respective seasons.

Not to take away from any other sport, but especially with football, there are more players to phase into this way of doing things.

Athletes will begin arriving between June 3rd and June 7th and will come in about 10-15 people at a time. Once on campus, they will undergo some early testing to check the status of their health, then will be placed in quarantine for a few days before beginning their workouts around June 11th.

“We want to stress that this is strictly voluntary on the athletes as to whether or not they wish to return, and if they choose not to come back at this time for whatever reason, we will respect their decision. They need to decide based on their own situations if they feel it is right for them to return,” Whitman added regarding the decision to leave it up to the athletes themselves on returning to campus.

With many of the athletes not being able to work out like they normally would have if they were still on campus in the facilities provided to them, Whitman adds that some may not be in the best shape right now and will need that extra time to get back to where they need to be in order to resume working out to prepare for their seasons.

“Our student-athletes are probably in the most varied shape that they have been in for quite some time, since they may not have been able to train like they normally would have had they been on campus. We realize that fact and want to give them the opportunity to get back in the best shape they can be in,” Whitman remarked about the overall physical condition of some of the athletes since they have been gone from campus.

Phasing in the athletes will be gradual, with some of the returning players from the two most revenue producing sports, and then, once the athletes show signs of continued good health, Whitman says then they will phase in athletes from women’s basketball, volleyball and women’s soccer with the next wave of athletes returning to campus.

“Normally during the months following the end of classes on campus, much of the student body goes home for the summer, which mainly leaves athletes on campus to continue to train. This was our thought process in having the student-athletes as some of the first ones back on campus, and whereas we don’t know what the fall semester will look like in terms of instruction or from an athletic competition standpoint, at least it’s a start,” Whitman said regarding the reasoning for having the athletes as some of the first ones back on campus.

Randy Ballard, who is the assistant athletic director for Sports Medicine, is taking the safety approach with the athletes, and has a thorough set of guidelines to ensure that everyone stays healthy.

“The athletes would be tested regularly, including temperature checks, to make sure that everyone is staying healthy. We will test on the front end, as well as the back end of the quarantine, in addition to daily checks to make sure that there aren’t any asymptomatic cases that might occur,” Ballard said about the testing procedure to keep athletes healthy.

The plan initially is to have athletes simply work out, and any activity that uses balls, including playing catch or shooting or dribbling a basketball, will not occur in this phase due to multiple people coming in contact with the objects. The same level of cleanliness and sanitation that others have exhibited during the pandemic will be in place here as well,” Whitman added about the safety of the athletes in touching objects handled by multiple people.

Once athletes get through the stages and show no signs of illness or symptoms, they will be allowed back into their campus residences, whereas hopefully the next phase of the process will already be underway.

“We know that this is a start to coming back for fall sports at the University of Illinois, but there are a lot of other factors at play right now, so we don’t have an exact timetable as to when everything will be back to normal,” Whitman said about when possibly sports could return, in whatever form, to the campus.

However, at least it’s a start, and over the past few weeks with no sports whatsoever, it’s something to look forward to.

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