Non-conference games are gone for Fort Lewis College basketball for at least the 2020-21 season. It’s one of the many changes coming to NCAA Division II sports in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Last week, the NCAA Division II Presidents Council agreed to lower the maximum and minimum number of games in an effort to stem the financial crisis college sports face after the coronavirus pandemic canceled spring sports and with campuses across the country expecting enrollment numbers to decrease this fall, especially if students are unable to return to campuses for in-person learning.
“The financial challenges faced by institutions because of COVID-19 are considerable and, as we prepare for summer and fall, continue to increase,” Sandra Jordan, chancellor of South Carolina Aiken and chair of the Division II Presidents Council, said in a news release. “The approved reductions strike an important balance of providing schools with scheduling flexibility, maintaining competitive equity within the one-year reductions to minimums and maximums, and continuing to prioritize opportunities for student-athletes to compete in NCAA championships. Periods of national crisis require carefully considered compromise.”
All sports will see a reduction in the maximum numbers of games they can schedule for the regular season. For example, basketball will be cut from 26 to 22 games, while soccer has been cut from 18 to 14 matches.
For FLC basketball, which plays a 22-game Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference schedule, that means no non-conference games to start the season in 2020, though the men’s and women’s teams will be able to schedule three exhibition games. FLC women’s basketball head coach Orlando Griego said he was happy to get the 22 games and exhibitions and avoid a more major cut.
“Obviously, we would like to have the non-conference games,” said FLC men’s basketball coach Bob Pietrack, who hopes to get one or two Division I teams on the schedule for exhibition games. “However, our focus for 2020-21 has always been on the conference games.”
Soccer, which will go to a 10-game round-robin format regular season this year for RMAC play after Dixie State transitioned to the D-I level beginning in the 2020-21 school year, will likely still get a few regional games, but women’s head coach Damian Clarke expects to only play teams from within the conference, though those additional games will not count toward the conference standings.
Clarke opted to look at the positives of fewer games earlier in the season.
“I think at the end of the day, the kids are excited just to have a season,” Clarke said. “Last year, we only had 17 games, so this year, yeah we’re cutting three games against some fun regional opponents. It’s a bit of a bummer, but at the same time, let’s see what it’s like to play a few less games and have a bit more rest between them. I think there’s going to be less injuries the first couple weeks of the season when we aren’t cramming a bunch of games into those first two weeks.”
Without as many non-conference games at the D-II level, which seeds teams into national tournaments based on regional rankings combining two or three conferences per region, it will be more difficult for regional committees to accurately seed teams for postseason play. For Clarke, it is a matter of finishing in the top three of the conference to have a chance at qualifying for a regional.
Conference tournaments may not be held as normal, either. RMAC tournaments involve eight teams. FLC athletic director Brandon Leimbach said he could see a scenario in which conference tournaments are canceled entirely as a cost savings effort with the results of the regular season determining all. He also could see scenarios in which conference tournaments are limited to only the top-four teams in the regular season standings and held at one host site to eliminate multiple travel days for quarterfinal games typically held at the home site of the higher seed.
“All of the member institutions are being so good,” Leimbach said. “Everybody understands what’s going on financially and from a sportsmanship perspective. The RMAC Presidents Council is looking at conference championships. Each school is in a different scenario based on funding. Schools with more money might want to do the regular eight-team tournament and pay to travel to more games. Opinions are all over the map, but institutional finances are going to play a big role in it. Division II, our conference, our college, we all understand the economic impact the country is facing. Each institution is in a different situation. We will do what is necessary to keep competition, but also must do what’s best for the livelihood of each institution moving forward.”
FLC offers NCAA men’s and women’s basketball, cross-country, golf, outdoor track and field and soccer as well as football, women’s lacrosse, softball, volleyball and cheerleading.
Leimbach expects to receive his 2020-21 athletics budget in early June, and he said he has already made recommendations to President Tom Stritikus regarding potential cuts. Unlike a handful of other colleges across the country, he does not expect to have to cut any programs.
“That would be a very, very last resort,” he said. “We’re already eliminating non-conference games, and that’s a big step with savings.
“The thing we can’t cut is giving the athletes a great experience. We have to make sure they are eating good when they go on the road and that we have the recruiting dollars there to make sure we have great student-athletes coming here year after year.”
One NCAA D-II conference – the California Collegiate Athletic Association – has already canceled fall sports. That conference does not offer football, making the cancellation easier to swallow financially.
Leimbach does not believe the RMAC is anywhere close to making that kind of decision.
“I think that was so premature,” he said. “I don’t think we’re going to get there. The conference athletic directors and everyone on the calls want to play and get back this fall. Everyone is pushing to play. If somehow Durango just got infected so mightily and the whole town got sick, as long as something like that doesn’t happen, we are going to play fall sports.
“I could see the RMAC making a decision based on each school getting its health and safety standards up and getting everyone back on campuses and into classes. They might push the start of fall sports back to the end of September or something and hitting that pause button with the full intention of playing sports this fall. That’s everybody’s No. 1 goal.”
There is no timetable for FLC athletes to be able to return to campus. The D-II dead period on recruiting is extended through the end of June, meaning coaches cannot travel to meet with recruits or bring recruits onto campuses. Clarke said it has still been easy to attract recruits based simply on the beauty of Durango and the FLC campus.
But the ability for athletes to get back on campus in mid-August for the start of football practice will be key if FLC is to start the football season Sept. 5 at Division I FCS Northern Colorado, a game that will pay FLC $40,000. Under new head coach Darrius G. Smith, FLC was unable to complete spring practices to get acclimated to the new head coach. If FLC can’t make up for lost time, Leimbach said the Northern Colorado game might be in jeopardy. That would leave only the nine conference games on the Skyhawks’ schedule this season.
“If we can’t get on campus and be ready to play, that game is not going to happen,” Leimbach said. “That would be a huge bummer for us because it’s a guarantee game and helps our budget. But nobody can predict what’s going to happen. Who knows if UNC is every going to be back on campus by mid-August and ready to go.
“This entire process is teaching us a lot about patience as we wait to decide how to move forward. I’ve never had to be this patient in my life. What’s great here at FLC is that President Stritikus’ entire focus is to return to on-campus learning and in-person classes this fall. A lot of campuses will be in different places and that will determine what happens with sports. The RMAC might have to intervene and make its own decisions. But the No. 1 goal is to have fall sports.”