The Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference, an NCAA Division II conference, plans to begin fall sports in 2020.
Fall practice will begin Aug. 24 and competition is scheduled to start Sept. 18 for all fall sports. The decision Monday comes as conferences across the U.S. have either postponed or canceled fall sports because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The RMAC also announced a conference-only schedule for football, men’s and women’s soccer and volleyball, while golf and cross-country will be able to attend non-conference meets.
“It’s way exciting,” said Fort Lewis College head football coach Darrius G. Smith. “We get to do what we have wanted to do, what I’ve been hungry to do. The few guys we have had up here for voluntary workouts, it’s what they have been preparing to do. We’ve always kept an optimistic approach that we were going to play this fall. So, instead of probably having that inkling of indecision of, ‘What if it doesn’t happen,’ now we know it’s going to happen. Or at least we know today it’s doing to happen. A lot could still change on us.”
The announcement Monday came after another meeting of the RMAC Presidents Council. A vote was originally planned July 16, but the council opted to delay the decision as the landscape of college sports continued to evolve regarding the pandemic. The vote was similar to the decision announced by the Lone Star Conference last Friday. The RMAC and Lone Star Conference both compete in the NCAA Division II South Central Region.
July 16, the NCAA announced all athletes should be tested for COVID-19 within 72 hours of each competition.
“The (Presidents Council) reviewed current local, state and national COVID-19 guidelines, including the (NCAA) guidances and principles, and agreed that closely aligning with these current best practices was essential to maintain a safe a healthy playing environment,” the RMAC said in a statement Monday afternoon. “Review of safety precautions and protocols will continue throughout the fall as the RMAC and its members monitor any need for further adjustments.”
There was no word from the RMAC regarding fan attendance at games. Another vote from the RMAC Presidents Council is expected Aug. 6.
Much could still change between Monday’s announcement and the next vote. The NCAA Board of Governors last week tabled a decision on fall sports championships until Aug. 4. It is still possible conferences, including the RMAC, would postpone or cancel fall sports seasons if fall championships are rescheduled for the spring or canceled completely.
The RMAC has 15 member institutions in Colorado, New Mexico, South Dakota and Utah. New Mexico Highlands is the lone RMAC member from New Mexico, which has already postponed high school fall sports to the spring. New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said she would ask colleges not to play contact sports in the fall.
Sources Monday said New Mexico Highlands has not committed to playing a fall sports schedule. Those sources spoke on the condition of anonymity because no announcement had yet been made by New Mexico Highlands.
At Fort Lewis College in Durango, coaches had not received information from the RMAC pertaining to health safety guidelines. In Colorado, which is home to 10 RMAC member schools, Gov. Jared Polis has limited outside participation to no more than 25 individuals, including coaches and players, per field. Indoor activity is limited to 10 participants.
“We don’t have any detail as to how exactly we will create the social distancing and follow the COVID-19 protocols from the game standpoint,” said FLC women’s soccer coach Damian Clarke. “We have a little over a month for that to get squared away.
“If we do get to the point to be able to travel to games, I anticipate limited numbers traveling to help alleviate a little bit of the social distancing piece. There’s still a lot for us to learn before we move forward.”
After NCAA Division II reduced the maximum and minimum game requirements for the 2020-21 school year earlier this summer, Fort Lewis College had already planned to play a conference-only schedule in the majority of its sports.
FLC football was slated to play against Division I FCS Northern Colorado in a guarantee game Sept. 5 in Greeley. That game, which is now canceled, would have paid FLC $40,000 to play. It was the only FLC football non-conference game on the schedule.
The Skyhawks are now scheduled to open the season Sept. 19 at Colorado School of Mines in Golden.
“We are being allowed to play some football. We’re gonna get after it,” said Smith, FLC’s first-year head football coach. “If the Presidents Council is making the decision that we are going to follow all the guidelines with all these kids and coaches to play in a safe football environment and they feel we can get that done, I’m 100% behind the decision.
“I’m not a doctor or a sports medicine person. I have to adhere to the guidelines they put forth, and I am going to follow them to the letter of the law the same we have done while allowing student-athletes to have voluntary workouts. We will continue to follow the county and state standards put forth for us with the full understanding the rest of the schools in the RMAC are going to do the same.”
Football practice was originally scheduled to begin Aug. 10, so Monday’s decision delayed the potential start by two weeks. Smith will only have four weeks to install his new offensive system and settle position battles going into the opener at Mines.
“From a normal standpoint, it’s a little bit crunched,” Smith said. “But the game of football is about everyone adapting and overcoming. The timeline we have to work with, it’s my job to utilize that time for staff and players the best way I can to go out and put a good product on the field. Everyone else has the same problem.”
Schedule changes are inevitable for many of the other fall sports. FLC men’s soccer had four games scheduled before Sept. 18, while women’s soccer had two. Volleyball did not have any conference games scheduled before Sept. 18. Cross-country and men’s golf, which will be allowed to attend non-conference events, each would miss one event before Sept. 18, while that is the day FLC is scheduled to host a home cross-country meet. FLC women’s golf could potentially miss two events before Sept. 18.
“I had sort of prepared the athletes for the worst and hoped for the best,” Clarke said. “I think everyone was a little bit surprised, at least from the coaches I’ve spoken to. All of us are like, ‘Oh wow, now we gotta change gears.’ We will continue to adapt. All of us right now are learning that adaptation is what has made us successful as human beings, and we have to keep doing it.”
Fort Lewis College athletic director Brandon Leimbach declined to comment for this story.