Friday, May 7, 2021 | 2 a.m.
Lindy La Rocque led the UNLV women’s basketball team to one of the most remarkable turnarounds in program history in 2020-21, as the team projected to finish near the bottom of the Mountain West took second.
And no one got to see it live.
Like every other sport at UNLV, La Rocque’s squad spent the pandemic year playing in empty arenas and staying distanced from each other while adhering to health and safety protocols aimed to keep athletics active while navigating the COVID-19 crisis. It was an exhausting situation that exacted a mental toll on everyone involved.
Fortunately, things appear to be changing for the better. As more people complete their vaccinations and the state begins easing health restrictions, there is growing hope that spectator sports could be back to normal soon—emphasis on “spectator.”
The first sign of things getting back to normal in that regard may have occurred this week, as UNLV kicked off its spring caravan. The series of public events is meant to connect coaches and their teams with the community—something that was not allowed in 2020.
On Tuesday, La Rocque was one of four UNLV coaches to get behind the wheel at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The event was media-only, but it was a positive sign for the eventual return of in-person sports activities.
“This is awesome,” LaRocque said after driving a handful of laps at speeds approaching 200 miles per hour. “To get out here is really something special. Our caravan is doing such a great job to reach different parts of our community. I’m even more excited come June, July when we can really get out in our community and get more hands on.”
Like LaRocque, football coach Marcus Arroyo had to deal with the pandemic during his first season on the job. He had limited access to his players, and fans had no access to the team, with brand-new Allegiant Stadium sitting empty for all but the final game of the 2020 campaign.
Arroyo is optimistic about the direction things are going. UNLV was able to hold a fairly normal spring session in April, with 15 practices and three full-contact scrimmages.
“I know for Lindy, for myself, we haven’t really done anything really since we’ve been here,” Arroyo said. “Unfortunately it’s been closed down. So to get the opportunity to be out in public and get to see guys here at Dream Racing and have the caravan be in public, this goes for spring ball as well, it’s awesome to get out in person.”
The caravan is set to run until May 23. It is made up of 20 events, with a mix of in-person interactions and virtual sessions. On May 10, coaches and players will provide coffee and bagels to first responders; on May 14, they’ll bring coffee and donuts to teachers.
Volleyball coach Dawn Sullivan realizes those are the kind of little things that can help fuse the teams and the community. She led her team to the NCAA Tournament last year and wants fans to be able to share in that kind of success.
If things continue on the right track, Sullivan anticipates strong in-person support for her team.
“I am incredibly excited for this community to open up,” Sullivan said. “I think the support they show is incredible. We felt it even through Covid when they couldn’t come out, so I cannot even imagine what it’s going to be like when we can finally open up.”
Men’s basketball coach Kevin Kruger is encouraged by recent trends and said his players have been pushing to get back on the court together for offseason workouts.
“They’re all asking about the first day they can be out here and when they can get in the gym, when they can start doing things together,” Kruger said.
Kruger, of course, is one person who has experienced a sold-out crowd at UNLV, as he led the team on a run to the Sweet 16 as a player in 2008.
After a year of conducting meetings via video conference and playing in empty buildings, he wants his players to experience everything UNLV has to offer—and fans are a big part of that.
“Something we’ve talked about as the state opens back up and as the country opens back up is getting the Mack packed,” Kruger said. “We haven’t been able to get out a lot lately, and so that first game, getting everybody out there, showing these guys, because when we talked to them through the recruiting process and the portal, one of the things we talked about was how much the city loves UNLV basketball and how much they love the school.
“Nothing would make us happier than having a packed Thomas & Mack.”
Mike Grimala can be reached at 702-948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Mike on Twitter at twitter.com/mikegrimala.