With layers of COVID-19 safety regulations and an unusual schedule assembled on the fly, Grant Leep's fifth season at the helm of the Seattle Pacific University men's basketball team has been full of challenges.
The former Mount Vernon High School star is thrilled to have the chance to face those challenges.
In a year scrambled by the COVID-19 pandemic, Leep has guided the Falcons to a 5-2 start. After dropping its first two games to Whitworth, the team has rolled to five consecutive wins, most recently a 79-72 victory over Northwest University.
Leep said he's happy with the way his team has responded to the shake-ups that have affected practices and games.
"Our group has done a really, really good job — not only handling everything that's come our way of being ready to play, but being ready to handle the levels of protocol we have to follow. We have state regulations, county regulations, city regulations, institutional regulations," he said. "We told (players) at the beginning of the year, it's about being flexible and adaptable. We've added games on two weeks notice. We've had to do all different things; who's practicing, who's not. It's been a wild year."
Because the Great Northwest Athletic Conference, in which Seattle Pacific typically plays, didn't draft a conference schedule this year, Leep and the school's administration put one together with available opponents, including teams not usually on the team's schedule.
The NCAA Division II Falcons have faced Division III Whitworth; Division II Saint Martin's University, which is also a member of the GNAC; and NAIA opponent Northwest University.
"We've played a who's who of small college basketball in the Northwest. We've played teams we haven't played in a long time," Leep said. "But we hadn't played for 10 months. It's good to get out there and have a competitive environment, officials, scoreboard ... all the things we love about the game."
There is one thing that's missing: a crowd.
Leep said games without fans took some getting used to, although by the end of each game, players are more focused on the next basket or defensive stop than what they can — or can't — hear.
"When you're at the end of game and have to execute, the guys are focused and forget about it," he said of the lack of fans. "But there are times when a crowd brings energy and life. I'll be looking forward to when we can have fans back in the arena safely."
Leep was a standout at Mount Vernon High School, where he was a three-time all-state selection before embarking on a playing career at the University of Washington that included the school record for career 3-point shooting. He coached at several schools before joining SPU as an assistant in 2009. He was elevated to head coach in 2016.
He was awarded the GNAC's Coach of the Year award last year after going 18-2 in conference play. The Falcons went 22-6 overall, the team's second consecutive 20-win season.
While this year stands apart because it has been unusual, Leep is glad the coaching staff, administration and players have come together to make it happen.
"For the young men we're coaching, it's the most normal they've felt in a long time — when we're on court together," he said.