Kevin Buisman called it one of the hardest days of his 30-year career in college athletics.
Last March, the Minnesota State Mankato athletic director had to tell the men’s hockey team — poised to contend for an NCAA championship — that its season would be cut short by the coronavirus.
Thursday, Buisman had to deliver bad news to five more Mavericks teams when the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference (NSIC) canceled all sports through the end of the year.
The Division II league, which includes MSU Mankato and eight other Minnesota schools, will not conduct conference play in football, volleyball, women’s soccer and cross-country during the 2020-21 school year.
A handful of winter sports — including men’s and women’s basketball, wrestling, women’s swimming and diving, and men’s and women’s indoor track and field — will not start their seasons until after Jan. 1.
Four of Minnesota’s NSIC members also play Division I men’s and women’s hockey. The Western Collegiate Hockey Association, with MSU Mankato and Bemidji State, and the National Collegiate Hockey Conference, with St. Cloud State and Minnesota Duluth, have not announced plans for the upcoming season.
Buisman predicted last week it would be difficult for D-II teams to play this fall, after the NCAA canceled its D-II and D-III fall championships and issued strict new mandates to contain COVID-19. Even though he saw it coming, Thursday’s news wasn’t any easier to digest.
“It was like reliving that moment in March all over again, walking into that locker room for hockey and telling seven seniors their dream of a national championship was over,” Buisman said. “That raw emotion we saw that day, I’m sure it’s taking place all over our campus today.”
In a statement, the NSIC cited several factors for canceling falls sports, including health and safety concerns, the cancellation of national championships in fall sports and new NCAA requirements for testing and quarantine.
St. Cloud State athletic director Heather Weems said officials from all 16 NSIC schools supported the cancellation.
Buisman and Weems said the cost, availability and processing time of COVID-19 tests was a major factor. The NCAA now requires athletes to be tested as often as once a week in some sports, including once within 72 hours of competition. Buisman said he has heard horror stories from colleagues whose teams have waited six to eight days for test results.
Unlike some conferences, the NSIC will cancel league competition in fall sports, rather than moving it to the spring. Weems said some student-athletes didn’t want to burn a year of eligibility with no chance to win an NCAA championship, and some schools don’t have enough staff to conduct fall sports alongside winter and spring seasons. Member schools can choose to play nonconference games in the spring.
The NCAA has ruled that D-II athletes will not use up a year of eligibility if they play 50% or fewer of the maximum number of games in their sport, and the NSIC said it is “committed to exploring meaningful opportunities and experiences for fall student-athletes in the spring, if it can be done reasonably and safely.”
Buisman is considering his options, including a five-game football season. There will be logistical challenges, and discussions of how many games can be safely played in the 2021 calendar year.
But after delivering so much bad news to Mavericks teams, Buisman said he is committed to bringing them something good.
“We have an obligation to the student-athletes to find a way to make it work,” Buisman said. “We owe it to them.’’