Athletic Director Scott Winterburn leads during the pandemic, getting athletes back on the field
by Sebastián Abdon Ibarra
photography by Shira O’Neal-Abend
“Look at the track record of our school; we offer a great mix of education and athletics as part of their overall collegiate experience, and it is second to none at the Division III level across the country,” says Scott Winterburn, University of La Verne athletic director. This is the elevator pitch that Winterburn offers to high school athletes who are looking to further their athletic careers.
Winterburn, entering his 21st year as the head baseball coach of the Leos, has served as the University of La Verne athletic director since 2019. Not even two years into his new role, he has had to deal with the largest and most impactful pandemic in recent memory. His role as the athletic director of the University, as it relates to the higher up decision makers, is more of an auxiliary role. Winterburn says he is there to support, give information about his unit and athletes as it relates to the goings on in the University. “So, if there is any talk about staying home or going back to face-to-face, my job is to impart the way the Athletic Department would do it and the feasibility of doing so.”
Winterburn says he certainly feels a certain pressure upon himself since the pandemic started. “I think that is a natural pressure that happens all the time, but especially during this time where every decision is made in the interest of safety.” He has found that he needs to strike a balance between encouraging and giving hope to the athletes while also tempering their hopes and expectations. He says that he tries to both encourage them to stay safe and healthy, and also continue to have hope that the current situation will be cleared soon. “As the numbers have been getting better recently in L.A. County, it gives us hope. We are on an upswing right now, and everyone’s feeling the positivity; it has given us a little more energy. However, that hope can be unforgiving sometimes. Last semester, many seniors delayed their graduation dates in order to have one more shot at a senior season because there was hope that their sport would resume. When that season never came, they had to spend another semester at the University when they could have already graduated if they had stuck to their original schedule. For those who have hope eternal and the money to back it up, the NCAA has granted student athletes another year of eligibility—as long as they are full time, which means paying tuition for an extra semester. “A lot of us were due to graduate in fall or January, and they extended their schedules to put classes in the spring so they could play in the spring. Finding this out they thought to themselves ‘man I should have just kept my regular schedule,’” Ivana Fatovic, a senior soccer player, said to the Campus Times Fall 2020.
Winterburn recognizes the danger that false hope poses to the athletes. He says that he feels terrible for the seniors at La Verne (and all over the country) and can sympathize with them. As a former baseball athlete who was able to play in high school, college and the professional level, he knows how important and valuable those experiences are.
Sumiko Rudisky, a junior communications major and highly recruited D/ATT player, is a passionate member of the Women’s Water Polo Team. Rudisky says she has had all but one interaction with Winterburn, and it was under the worst circumstances. “The only time I ever saw [Winterburn] was when he came to the pool deck to tell us our season was cancelled last year,” Rudisky says. Through this one interaction in a tough situation, Winterburn was able to leave a good impression on Sumiko. “He broke the news; he was nice about it. He was obviously sad that we could not practice. He did a really good job answering our questions and was kind.”
Jacob Barriga, a junior journalism major and outfielder on the Men’s Baseball Team, has a much clearer and closer relationship with Winterburn. As the head baseball coach, Winterburn would keep the team informed every week during Zoom meetings. “As a coach, he’s a father figure to a lot of people. He is going to keep you on a straight path during your time at La Verne,” Barriga says. “He told us, ‘It’s more than being a good baseball team. He wants to prepare us for our life outside of La Verne and outside of baseball.” Barriga says. Winterburn has not changed a bit since he received his new duties as the athletic director. He notices that during this pandemic Winterburn has been thinking about all sports and not just how the pandemic will affect the baseball team, says Barriga.
The different coaching staffs of the University have been affected by the pandemic. Winterburn says some days are better than others for the coaches. These are people who have played their sport their whole lives, and decided that they wanted to impact people through their life’s work of coaching. Winterburn says that not being able to interact and impact in the capacity that they are used to has been tough on the coaches. The athletic director says there is a possibility that the pandemic could affect the University’s ability to keep employing these coaches, but he says the risk is not much bigger than any other year. “As long as the whole world is fighting this thing, I do not see it being any more of a problem than during normal times. People come and go; some chose to stay, and others chose to seek new opportunities elsewhere. There is always some movement in our profession.”
Winterburn says the strength and conditioning staff has found ways to stay active and to do their jobs for the athletes from their homes. Matt Durant, head strength and conditioning coach, has been giving all the athletes workouts to do at home. Winterburn says the athletes and strength coaches hold Zoom meetings as a way to get their workouts done instead of meeting in person. “The strength guys miss it too. They miss being back at work and working directly with the athletes.”
The weight room, along with all of the other athletic facilities at the University that have not been in use, have been maintained as they normally would in preparation for when athletes are allowed back on campus. “Daily maintenance is gone, since no one is using them, but the normal stuff that we would do is being continued in hopes that we return soon,” Winterburn says.
He says that at Campus West on Wheeler Avenue, the University’s facility for the baseball and softball teams, has its grass in the outfield and infield being mowed and watered so the field remains in good condition.
If there is one thing that the pandemic has not been able to shake, it would be the University’s recruiting abilities. Winterburn believes that the Athletic Department has had a good recruiting year from what he has heard from his fellow coaches. “La Verne is a good school, and you have to remember it is not like these kids in high school are looking at our program not playing, and they are. Those high schools are not playing either.” Winterburn notes that there are many high school youth who have not played sports in a year, and for some they cannot wait to get another chance to play.
For the athletes under his care right now, Winterburn says that the mental health of the athletes is always in the minds of coaches during weekly team Zoom meetings. He believes these meetings are important because they offer athletes an avenue to let someone know how they are doing, and allows coaches to remind them of all of the resources that the University offers. “I think that has gone as well as can be expected during this time. We are not immune from that stuff by any means, but I think our staff does a good job of getting the word out that there are resources to be used,” Winterburn says.
As for the future of La Verne athletics on campus, Winterburn says the spring sports had the best shot at being the first to safely return. “The spring sports in general, golf, track and field, women’s water polo—there is probably no safer place to be than in the chlorinated water, baseball, softball. The outdoor sports are where you can maintain a lot of distancing,” Winterburn says.
As the pandemic eased, on April 5, spring sports returned for practice on campus. The process of reintegrating these athletes on campus started with the spring sports first. Winterburn says student athletes went through NCAA resocialization protocols. He says everyone playing presented a negative PCR (COVID) test, and followed testing protocols from the NCAA from that point forward. Then athletes went through the regular tests they would go through as an athlete, like physical and impact testing. From that point, athletes report daily symptom and temperature checks upon arrival, and they follow all social distancing and sanitation protocols while at their sports venues.
On April 25, it was announced that spring sports would have a limited spring season. women’s water polo, baseball, softball, and track and field will compete until the end of May, with SCIAC championships as their goal. For this season, the teams will not advance to regional and NCAA national championship games.
“Honestly it is just great to be out there. Right now we are just out there practicing, it is not the same as it was, but it is better than nothing. Everyone is grateful to be out there with the coaches, being able to see all your teammates, and get out there and run around a little bit,” says Barriga.