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Go East: USW athletics relocates to east Texas

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The name Michelle Lujan Grisham has fallen on some people’s ears with such offense these past several months, it’s been almost like profanity to them.

Others say the governor is just doing her sworn duty, trying to keep New Mexico citizens safe when she issues health orders designed to contain the spread of COVID-19.

Still others are somewhere in the middle.

Something all of the above have in common is the frustration of watching businesses shuttered, long lines at stores and drive-thrus, and the cancelling of all sporting events within the state.

Indeed, the New Mexico sports world has been a barren place for close to nine months now.

University of the Southwest Athletic Director Steve Appel is taking steps to bring his school’s sports back. Appel and USW are going to apply a bring the-mountain-to-Mohammed approach to the Mustangs’ spring 2021 season by playing it across state lines. Texas has allowed high school and college, even pro sports, to proceed with protocols and procedures in place.

That, in Appel’s view, makes Texas seem like somewhat of a Shangri-La, sports wise. Appel announced Wednesday that USW’s fall, winter and spring sports will be played in late winter and throughout the spring at Sky Ranch, a Christian retreat in Van, Texas, 26 miles northwest of Tyler.

“I’m very excited, ” Appel said Wednesday in a telephone interview with the News-Sun. “I’d be real honest to say that I didn’t know that I could pull this off, but I’m extremely happy for the kids. It’s been rough.

“I’m very thankful for our president (Dr. Quint Thurman) being behind us in this situation, and I’m very thankful that the other administrators are supporting us in this decision. I think it shows that we care about our students on this campus. We’re a very unique university; it shows we’re here for our students and we care about our students and we’re going to put them in the best place to succeed.”

USW’s road to east Texas began when Governor Grisham announced late last week that the state will be operating on a tiered ‘Red to Green’ system as of Wednesday, with an amended emergency public health order that relaxed some of the previous health order’s COVID restrictions, effective since Nov. 16. Appel, though, saw what that new health order meant to the New Mexico sports world’s future – particularly his USW athletic program’s future – and thought it was time to act, time to find a new home for his teams.

“The protocols would put financial burdens on us,” Appel said. “She (Grisham) wanted all our athletes and staffs to get three PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) tests done each week.”

PCR tests are molecular tests used to copy small segments of DNA. Free tests are offered through general health, but Appel says the results usually will not come back for a week, which is obviously too long to wait when being used to determine if an athletic event is safe to play.

There are tests that come back in a matter of hours, but they cost $12,000 per day based on the number of USW student-athletes who would be requiring them. For the governor’s three-test-per-week requirement, the cost each week would be $36,000.

“I’m glad, I guess, we don’t have football,” Appel said, “because that (cost) would skyrocket even more.”

Appel and USW had considered still being based at the Hobbs campus and playing all road games. But with the 14-day quarantine requirement every time the Mustang teams returned, that wasn’t going to work.

So, a much more cost-effective and schedule-friendly solution for the NAIA school was to head east, be based there, and travel to visit its opponents from there. But, why Sky Ranch? Why Van?

“When I started to first think about this plan, the possibility about even relocating, A) I had to think about an area that would be safe for our kids,” Appel said. “B) It had to fit financially. C) It had to be a place where our kids could continue their education. And D) it had to be near our conference opponents. The location works as far as being centralized to everybody in our conference.”

Appel says that the furthest USW trips from Van will be to Our Lady of the Lake in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and the University of Houston/Victoria. They will be a few hours away, the other opponents much closer.

Appel thought the retreat was not just a better option; it was the only option under the circumstances.

“Initially, when I ran this idea around our president (Dr. Quint Thurman), I had to also meet with some people via Zoom. For keeping our kids safe, a hotel option isn’t going to be best because any 18- to 22-year-old is going to want to walk out the door and go to a convenient store, gas station, and possibly come back and infect everybody else. But a retreat is an isolated area where our kids will eat, sleep and study together.”

And it won’t cost $36,000 per week.

“Most retreat centers can be quite expensive,” Appel said. “However, they’re probably down in business as well (at Sky Ranch); that’s why we were able to accommodate each other. They’re giving us a rate per person that fits into our budget; it actually includes laundry service as well. That’s another big hiccup I had to work on – ‘Where are these kids going to do their laundry when they’re there for five weeks?’”

Sky Ranch has two indoor basketball courts, a volleyball court, soccer fields, and baseball and softball fields for practices. And that’s just the start of what the retreat will have for the Mustang student-athletes, who already have the flexibility to do their courses online.

“Speaking with Sky Ranch, they actually have a huge room that may be dedicated for students to getting their work done,” Appel said. “The entire retreat area has wifi available. They’ve even offered us coaches a space to get our work done, as well as space for our trainers to work with our students on a more private basis. I can’t ask for a better situation and a better space for our kids to be for a length of time.

“On top of that,” Appel continued, “the kids will not be locked in a hotel room. They’ll be able to get out and walk around the lake and actually breathe some fresh air, which will be really nice for them.”

The USW men’s and women’s basketball teams will be at the retreat from Jan. 17 until mid-February. The Mustang volleyball team will be there for the entire month of March. The men’s and women’s soccer teams will reside there from mid-March to mid-April. All of the above will play conference games only.

USW’s baseball and softball teams will be at the retreat from mid-March until the end of April, and will be able to fit in some midweek non-conference games, at least that is the current plan, according to Appel.

“It’s going to be a very busy spring,” Appel said, “but at the end of the day, it’s going to be all well worth it. I’m just glad that the kids will be able to play their seasons.”

All in all, the Sky Ranch plan checks every box under the trying circumstances of COVID-19. The Mustangs would rather be based out of Hobbs, would rather put the ‘home’ back into ‘home game’, would rather the virus was a thing of the past.

But, if these are the circumstances, if this is the situation, Sky Ranch will work for now.

“I think this is the most ideal situation we can be in,” Appel said, “in the most non-ideal scenario.”

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