The Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference is committed to starting the college basketball season next week. Four games have already been canceled.
That includes the season openers for Fort Lewis College. South Dakota School of Mines & Technology informed the FLC men’s team on Wednesday that it would not travel to Durango to play Nov. 21. The FLC women’s team is also in the middle of a 14-day quarantine after a player tested positive for COVID-19 last week, so both FLC programs now have hopes to play against Chadron State College at home Dec. 4.
“It is unfortunate not to be able to play, but everybody understands the magnitude of what is going on with the virus,” FLC men’s head coach Bob Pietrack said. “We are disappointed not to play next week, but we know it is not safe to play right now.”
The RMAC Presidents Council and Athletic Administrators Council met Wednesday. Despite several teams already in quarantine because of coronavirus and several Week 1 cancellations and postponements, both councils agreed to move forward with basketball seasons as scheduled with the understanding there will likely be consistent disruptions, RMAC Commissioner Chris Graham said in an email interview with The Durango Herald.
“The theme is to give student-athletes whatever we can by way of competition,” Graham said.
Graham said any games that are postponed can be made up at any time the participating institutions can agree to play. If games cannot be made up, they will be considered a “no contest.” A no contest can be declared for any reason related to COVID-19, Graham said.
There are 15 RMAC member schools that compete in basketball spread across Colorado, New Mexico, South Dakota and Utah. Teams are slated to play a 22-game conference-only schedule, though nobody expects any team to reach the full 22 games.
“Our traditional schedule and wide geographic footprint do not allow for many rescheduling opportunities, but we support any attempts to do so,” Graham said.
New Mexico Highlands, the lone New Mexico school in the RMAC, has suspended all athletic competition through the end of the fall semester. The school is scheduled for five games before the end of 2020 and two more games on Jan. 1-2.
It is not clear if Highlands will be able to compete at all during the 2020-21 season.
The four cancellations of Week 1 games in the RMAC do not include Highlands.
The RMAC still plans to hold a conference tournament after regular-season play concludes Feb. 27. It will be held as normal with the top-eight teams in the conference qualifying. The top-four seeds will host quarterfinal games, and the semifinals and championship will be held on the campus of the highest-seeded team remaining after quarterfinals are played. As always, teams will be seeded based on winning percentage and not records.
“This will allow us to adjust for no contests and the inevitable unbalanced records,” Graham said. “Teams must play at least 11 RMAC contests (half schedule) to remain eligible for the RMAC Tournament.”
The RMAC already did away with nonconference games for the 2020-21 season. So far, NCAA Division II has not adjusted its schedule for regional and national tournament play and has not canceled winter sports championships as it did for fall sports.
After the FLC women’s team revealed a positive COVID-19 case last week, the men’s team also canceled practice earlier this week before the Skyhawks returned to Whalen Gymnasium on Wednesday. The women’s program aims to resume practice after the 14-day quarantine next week, head coach Orlando Griego said.
“We are hoping to have three good weeks to prepare for that Dec. 4 opener,” Griego said. “We have taken every precaution to make sure everyone is safe and our campus is safe and that we can get back to practice safely.
“Our team has done a good job of being realistic knowing, hey, maybe we will play this week or not play this week. We have to be open and flexible all season. It is out of our control as of right now. We will be prepared to play as long as we’re safe and we can provide a safe environment to play. If it is not a safe environment, we will be OK to back out. At the end of the day, we just want to be safe.”
Coaches had no contact with players during the summer because of the pandemic. Both Griego and Pietrack are pleased with the direction of their teams after fall practices and the conduct of their players who have worked diligently to remain healthy.
“I think President (Tom) Stritikus has done a masterful job of keeping our school open and safe,” Pietrack said. “If it wasn’t for him and the efforts of people all over campus, we wouldn’t be practicing right now. Our testing on campus is the best in the league because of what President Stritikus had set up for us to get daily testing for free. It’s a big reason we’ve been able to get this far.
“We are so thankful to be able to practice. We have a game scheduled now in three weeks. If it is safe enough to play the game, we will welcome the chance to play. If not, we will understand completely. We want to do make sure whatever we are doing that we are not putting anybody in harm’s way.”
All players will not lose a season of eligibility if they play this week. For some FLC seniors, that will present tough decisions as to what to do next year.
When FLC does start the season, fans will not be allowed inside Whalen Gymnasium at least through the end of 2020. FLC will reassess its ability to host fans for 2021 games.
“We have the best fans in the league from a community standpoint,” Pietrack said. “Nobody has the community support like we do. Not having them at games will be different, but we still feel their support in a lot of different ways. Though the gym will be empty, we still feel that.”