As NCAA Division I football leaders continue pushing to open on schedule this fall, returning to play isn’t a given for Division II and III teams.
Entering Friday, 13 D-III schools, mainly in the East, had announced they’re canceling all or some fall sports because of the pandemic.
In D-II, Morehouse College has canceled its football and cross-country seasons, and the California College Collegiate Association, which doesn’t offer football, announced in May that it was canceling all fall sports.
The most prominent small-college leagues with Minnesota teams are the Division II Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference (NSIC) and the Division III Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC).
The plan, the leader of each conference says, remains to return to competition this fall. Both conferences are developing protocols to accomplish that, even as increasing COVID-19 cases nationally cloud the situation and fuel skepticism.
“Our efforts at this point are on having a fall season,” said Dan McKane, the MIAC commissioner.
“We’re very close to finishing our return to athletics plan for the fall.”
“The magnitude of moving parts when you’re aiming at a virus that you can’t see, it’s never in anyone’s wildest dream,” said Erin Lind, the NSIC commissioner.
“Our goal is if we can get our student-athletes back on campus and get them competing in a safe and healthy environment, that’s what we want to happen.”
Challenges the schools face include the costs associating with coronavirus testing, the logistics of social distancing on campus when all students return, and the uncertainty of what happens if multiple athletes test positive during the season.
“It seems like all the planning and potential for fall sports is fragile,” said Minnesota State Mankato athletic director Kevin Buisman, whose school is one of nine from Minnesota in the NSIC. “It feels like it could be sand running through your fingers a little bit.”
The NSIC already has cut the maximum number of regular-season games for teams in fall sports — football (from 11 to 10), volleyball (26 to 20) and women’s soccer (18 to 14).
“We think [the fall season is] going to happen, but we’re still not sure,” said Concordia (St. Paul) football coach Shannon Currier, also from the NSIC.
“If a quarterback tests positive, who else is shut down? That answer might dictate how we practice and meet.”
Key dates coming
The next few weeks will be telling in terms of local D-II and III schools returning to play this fall.
The MIAC athletic directors’ council meets Tuesday, and McKane is hopeful it will make a recommendation to the presidents’ council, which meets July 15.
“That’s our next big hurdle — to get the input from our presidents,” he said. “A lot of it is, ‘Are we going to be in person, in class, on campus?’ Everybody right now is saying at some level they will. That is a good trigger for us.
“Now the question is, ‘Can we play all of the sports that we have safely?’ Football stands out as breaking all social distancing norms. How do we do that safely?”
The NSIC also has league meetings next week, and Lind expects to hear from the conference’s presidents, chancellors and board of directors in mid-to-late July.
“In April and May, everyone was like, ‘OK, we’ll get through this,’ ” Lind said. “Now, we’re not getting to the 11th hour, but we’re past halftime.”
Another conference outside Minnesota could have an influence on state teams, too.
The Ivy League will announce its plans for fall sports on Wednesday, and Forbes, citing an unidentified conference source, reported that it’s “98, 99% likely” that the Ivy League will move football to the spring of 2021.
“Everybody is waiting with bated breath to see what the Ivies do next week,” said Buisman, whose football team was D-II national runner-up last year.
“They’ve always kind of been a barometer for college athletics. They led the decisionmaking in March, and the decisions they announce next Wednesday could be something that has a broad influence on others.”
Sticking to the planning
With the clock ticking toward August, when fall teams are slated to begin practices on campus, schools and conferences will need their return-to-play plans finalized and ready to implement.
“By early August, we’re going to have to have some pretty significant decisions made,” said Corey Borchardt, commissioner of the Upper Midwest Athletic Conference, which includes seven full-time members in Minnesota and two in Wisconsin. He remains cautiously optimistic that his D-III conference will have fall sports.
McKane acknowledged the D-III programs that have canceled fall sports but didn’t think that necessarily will happen here.
“They certainly catch our attention,” he said. “… But in Minnesota we believe we’re in a little different place in terms of the COVID infection right now. We’re still in a good place. However, that could turn any minute of any day.”
Lind stressed that the NSIC still is moving forward even in a fluid situation.
“We’re not to the point of cancellation yet, by any means,” she said. “We have taken the approach that we are preparing for the fall of 2020, that we are going to compete.
“There’s always an asterisk behind the schedules we make.”