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Sims guiding SMC athletic department through pandemic

Josh Sims was in Las Vegas for the West Coast Conference men’s basketball tournament when his phone rang. It was his boss at Saint Mary’s College in Moraga, California, who needed to tell him something that was going to happen once he made it back to the Bay Area.

“He told me, ‘I volunteered you to be on this campus COVID group because we needed a representative from athletics and figured you’d be good for it,’” Sims recalled with a laugh.

Little did Sims know just how long that committee would last and how much things would change between the last sporting event he would attend and the next.

“To me, it’s something new every day,” Sims said in regard to how things have changed since the pandemic started. “Something changes here and there, and it’s about how flexible can you be and how can you find solutions to every problem that comes up — whether it’s getting students back on campus or how are we going to test, what company we’re going to use to test, how frequently we’re going to test.”

A former two-sport athlete at Phoenix High School who graduated in 1998 and did his undergrad work at Oregon State, Sims was recently promoted to assistant athletic director for sports medicine by that same boss who called him seven months ago in Vegas, athletic director Mike Matoso.

Sims admits that the new job title doesn’t mean he’s suddenly responsible for more than what he already has been undertaking within the athletic department.

“Not really,” Sims, 40, quipped when asked if his job really is going to change all that much.

He will still work with the centerpiece of the Gaels’ athletic department — the men’s basketball team — on a daily basis.

The biggest thing that has changed the day-to-day operations of the Saint Mary’s athletic department is the elephant in the room for all intercollegiate athletic programs right now: Managing the COVID-19 pandemic and keeping student-athletes safe.

“You go from just worrying about basketball and athletics to wondering about how do we open a campus back up,” Sims said. “The job title hasn’t changed things, the course of the pandemic has changed what my focus is on from a campus-wide perspective. We’re trying to be a resource and bring into what we do for testing in athletics and if the campus can match what we’re doing, so we’re using the same people, protocols, whatever we can and looking at that.”

Like many schools across the country, Saint Mary’s — which has 16 intercollegiate athletic teams — has a small number of students actually living on campus during the 2020-2021 academic year since classes are being held remotely. According to Sims, of the 460 or so students currently living in on-campus housing, about 100 of those are student-athletes. Another 200 or so student-athletes live off campus in the Moraga area.

Saint Mary’s shifted much of its weight lifting and conditioning programs outside, taking advantage of a campus that is surrounded by trees and wildlife. And, as Sims said, a lot of the early stages of those different programs has involved educating the players, coaches and staff members about the protocols and changing guidelines that the state and county have put into place.

“It’s about things you have to do now on a daily basis that provide as much safety as we possibly can,” Sims said.

There is only one team at Saint Mary’s that is currently competing, the men’s golf squad. According to the school’s athletics website, the first game scheduled to be held on campus will be a women’s basketball game against the University of the Pacific on Dec. 30.

The WCC will hold a conference-only basketball schedule this season.

“There’s just so many things out there, so how do you narrow it down to which one works and how does it work with how many people you have to test,” said Sims. “Then you get into how you travel with teams and stuff like that. It just started from the time we stopped (in March) about how do we get all of our student-athletes who want to be back (next season) back on campus.”

California has been one of the United States’ hardest-hit states when it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic. As of Thursday, the Bay Area had nearly 110,000 confirmed cases and 1,659 deaths.

Sims said schools in the region are in constant contact with one another as to how to approach the return of student-athletes.

The WCC has two other schools in the Bay Area — The University of San Francisco and Santa Clara University — to complement the Pac-12 Conference presence of California and Stanford universities.

The athletic training staffs already have quality working relationships, according to Sims, and the pandemic has only strengthened that bond.

It doesn’t matter what school it is, their goal remains the same: They want to have their student-athletes be safe as they return to sports.

“We’re able to bounce ideas off each other and use each other as a resource to how we can all get better and improve,” Sims said. “Our teams all compete against each other, but in our sports medicine environment we are all there to help each other when we need it.”

It doesn’t hurt that those schools are well known for their academics as well as their athletics, if not more.

“To have so many in the Bay Area, it really helps to utilize that, whether it’s general questions to COVID to athletic-related,” Sims said. “You’re in an area with a tremendous amount of resources and people who work together for the same outcome.”

Sims, a loyal Oregon State Beaver through and through dating back to his childhood, has seen his sports medicine career take him from the West Coast to the central part of the country and then back again.

After graduating from OSU, Sims was a graduate assistant at the University of Oklahoma, where he earned Masters of Education with an emphasis in Intercollegiate Athletic Administration and a Master of Human Relations.

His first job in California was with the San Francisco 49ers in 2008. Two years later, Sims returned to Oregon State before moving back to the Bay Area at NCAA Division II institution Dominican University in San Rafael, his first job leading an athletic training program.

Sims said that he’s tried to take a piece of every place he’s worked at and instill that wisdom at Saint Mary’s.

“I’ve had the chance to work at some great institutions both big and small,” Sims said. “I’ve had the opportunity to see how things work in those types of environments and successful places and places that are striving to be there. I’ve been able to take an experience from every place that I’ve been and really just bring that along to get me to where I am.

“I’ve been fortunate to work under some of the best people in the profession, I think.”

All of that has prepared him for where he is now.

And even if it’s in a pandemic that has thrown everything on its head, the end goal is still the same: Safety.

“Our profession is one based off injuries — we take care of injured athletes when it happens,” Sims said. “So it’s about how we shift our focus to not only how we care for that injury but also get them back to whatever it is that they do in a quick, safe way.”

Reach Danny Penza at 541-776-4469 or dpenza@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @penzatopaper.

Current Saint Mary’s College Assistant Athletic Director for Sports Medicine and Phoenix High School graduate Josh Sims tends to an injured player during a game against the University of Nevada at Chase Center in San Francisco. (Tod Fierner / Saint Mary’s College Athletics)
Current Saint Mary’s College Assistant Athletic Director for Sports Medicine and Phoenix High School graduate Josh Sims has led the Gaels’ athletic department through the whirlwind of changes as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Tod Fierner / Saint Mary’s College Athletics)