One day after the NCAA Division II Presidents Council voted to cancel fall sports championships, the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference Presidents Council reconvened to evaluate its decision from a week earlier to hold fall sports this year during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Thursday, the RMAC reversed course.
After lengthy deliberation of the RMAC Presidents Council, it was announced late Thursday afternoon the fall sports of football, men’s and women’s soccer and volleyball would be pushed to the spring semester, though no new dates had been established for those seasons to be held.
“I think, at the end of the day, it’s probably the right decision,” Fort Lewis College women’s soccer coach Damian Clarke said. “I think it’s safer for us to learn more about what the situation is going to look like as schools come back together and try to navigate these things as best we can.”
The best NCAA Division II cross-country conference in the nation, the RMAC decided to hold a fall cross-country season this year as regularly scheduled. Golf, which has its championships in the spring, also will be allowed to compete in regular-season tournaments this fall.
“I told the guys when we got track season shutdown in March that our gratitude would be through the roof the next time we toed the line,” said FLC men’s cross-country and track coach Joshua Coon. “The RMAC is the class of Division II, so it’s not like we are shorting ourselves competition this year. Obviously, we would like to have a shot at nationals with the squad we’ve built for this year, but that is out of our control now.”
While cross-country and golf will be happy to still have a season, Fort Lewis College first-year head football coach Darrius G. Smith was disappointed Thursday. He saw spring practices get canceled after only two sessions and was hopeful this summer the team would get a chance to start the fall season. After riding the ups and downs of the decision-making process, Smith sunk in his chair Thursday evening when the RMAC decision was announced.
“I’ve had better days. I’m disappointed, frustrated,” Smith said. “I feel bad for all the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference student-athletes. The climate kind of dictated this was possibly going to happen, but I never allowed our guys to feel any of that. I am a face-value, high-energy person. We were going, preparing every day until somebody told us to stop. Unfortunately, today at around 5:15 p.m., somebody finally told us to stop.
“As far as the spring goes, I don’t know if it is possible, feasible, if it can be done. I don’t know any of that.”
The RMAC already had guidelines put in place by the NCAA regarding return-to-play when the Presidents Council met last week and approved fall conference-only seasons. But with extra consideration for those guidelines along with the Division II decision Wednesday, the council had more to consider before this week’s vote.
“After considerable deliberation, the council’s decision was made based on the recent (NCAA) Board of Governors’ mandate of the NCAA Resocialization principles and the Division II Presidents Council decision to cancel fall championships,” the RMAC said in a news release. “The RMAC decision allows league members further opportunity to align with the student-athlete safety measures outlined in the NCAA document to prepare for competition.
“The determination on sport status was made based on the NCAA risk rankings of sport. As it stands currently with NCAA guidance, cross-country and golf are lower risk than all other fall sports. Further details on the structure and scope of the spring semester practice and competition schedules for postponed sports will be released in the coming weeks.”
In July, the NCAA mandated all athletes undergo COVID-19 testing no more than 72 hours before any competition. With athletic budgets already greatly cut because of funding issues created by the coronavirus and the loss of winter sports championships and all spring sports competition during the 2019-20 school year, that mandate would create further complications for small schools such as Fort Lewis College in Durango, which had a $127,000 budget cut from the school’s general fund going into the 2020-21 school year.
“The first and most important consideration is whether sports can be conducted safely for college athletes,” Michael V. Drake, chair of the board and University of California system president, said in a news release. “Each division must examine whether it has the resources available to take the required precautions given the spread of COVID-19.”
Wednesday, the NCAA opted to allow each division to make its own decision regarding fall sports championships. While Division I has yet to make an announcement, Division II and Division III were quick to cancel fall championships will before the Aug. 21 deadline set by the NCAA.
“After reviewing and discussing the Board of Governors’ directives, the Division II Presidents Council made the difficult decision that holding fall championships in any capacity was not a viable or fiscally responsible option for Division II,” Sandra Jordan, chancellor of South Carolina Aiken and chair of the council, said in a news release. “This decision was discussed very thoroughly, and I assure you, it was not made lightly. It is important to note that fall student-athletes will be given eligibility-related flexibility to allow them championship opportunities in the future. As we move forward, we will continue to focus on providing the best championships experience for our winter and spring student-athletes who were not afforded those opportunities at the beginning of this pandemic.”
A week earlier, the RMAC Presidents Council had voted to start fall sports with a two-week delay. Practices were set to begin Aug. 24 with competition to begin Sept. 18 with teams limited to only conference games.
That all changed Thursday with the decision to push high-risk fall sports to the spring semester.
“It was an extremely difficult decision, but I truly think it was one made in the best interest of athletes, schools and community health and welfare,” said FLC athletic director Brandon Leimbach said after the NCAA Division II decision Wednesday. “Every college athlete has the goal to compete for championships. This fall, there isn’t that opportunity. It’s disappointing, but Division II finally made a decision to move forward, and I think our coaches are actually relieved a decision has been made. Now, the RMAC and other D-II conferences can make informed decisions on how to proceed for 2021. We can now put the emphasis on winter and spring sports that lost out on their championships last season.”
Eight of 24 NCAA Division II conferences had already made a move to postpone fall sports until the spring before the NCAA Division II announcement Wednesday. Similarly, the NAIA and NJCAA had moved all of its fall sports to the spring.
Now, the RMAC will do the same, though there still will not be postseason championship events held for those fall sports that move to the spring. The RMAC said it will allow fall sports to have some practice opportunities this fall, though specifics were not yet outlined.
The Big Sky Conference, which competes in NCAA Division I, opted to cancel the fall football season in a vote Thursday.
“We are seeing a lot of Division I FCS conferences and teams making decisions now,” Smith said. “They are thinking about not even doing anything in the spring, either. What we need to find out is the layout for fall practice and what that is going to be. A whole lot of questions have to be answered now.”
In college, many athletes graduate after the fall semester, and FLC has some fall athletes that will be able to do so who may decide to graduate and not play in the spring. Student-athletes also may decide not to come to campus in the fall and complete coursework online.
“We are still concerned about being on campus with the student-body population with no season and being put to spring and maybe doing classwork online,” Smith said. “I have to be concerned about whether or not young men now decide to stay home and do classwork at home.”
Coon said the cross-country team would not travel to out-of-state meets. The RMAC Championships are scheduled for Oct. 24 in Golden. Coon said he was not sure if the Sept. 18 start date set by the RMAC Presidents Council last week still applied or if the team would be able to compete Sept. 12 at the Adams State University Joe Vigil Invite in Alamosa.
FLC will host a home cross-country meet, the 4 Corners Cross Country Classic, Sept. 18 at Hillcrest Golf Club. That event also was to be co-hosted by Bayfield and Durango high schools, though it is unclear if that will be allowed to happen with new Colorado High School Activities Association restrictions on cross-country events for this fall.
“Competing within our conference, we know the quality of season will be incredibly high,” Coon said. “We have worked on our home meet with Bayfield and Durango for a year now to put our home event together, so we will see what it actually looks like with the new regulations.”
If there is a spring season for football, soccer and volleyball, Clarke said his FLC women’s soccer season would use it as an opportunity to grow and get better. FLC volleyball, also under a first-year head coach in Giedre Tarnauskaite, has eight new players on the 15-player roster, so fall practice will give the Skyhawks more time to prepare ahead of a possible spring slate.
“The most intelligent way for us to look at it is this is a chance for us to develop athletes and our team,” Clarke said. “The longer you give us to train and build our team, the better we can be. That’s the message for our women’s soccer team. Plus, we are going to be one year closer to done with school, which is the end goal. It is easy to be focused on athletics, but at the end of the day, kids are here to go to school. If there is no season, the end goal is finishing school anyway.”