The Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference officially canceled fall sports on Thursday, and postponed all sports through the end of the calendar year.
But really they were over as soon as the NCAA released a new set of COVID-19 protocols and requirements last week.
The NCAA’s Board of Governors chose last week to leave the future of fall sports championships up to each individual classification, but for any division, conference or school that wanted to go forward with a fall season, a series of coronavirus prevention and care standards were issued.
They included comprehensive testing, honoring of scholarships and full medical coverage for any COVID-19 related medical issues. The NCAA also banned schools from giving players the option to sign waivers to assume all risk.
Division II and Division III canceled their fall championships that day, and while several NSIC members talked about forging ahead with fall competition in some fashion, the NSIC reached the inevitable conclusion this week that doing so wouldn’t be possible under the NCAA’s requirements.
“The league’s initial decision to delay the start of fall sports was made with the rationale to allow campuses the ability to focus solely on reopening safely for their broader university communities,” said NSIC commissioner Erin Lind.
“In light of the recent decisions made by the NCAA Board of Governors, it is no longer feasible to conduct outside competition this fall semester. Our student-athletes deserve a competitive experience that provides a greater degree of safety and certainty than current conditions would allow. We believe now is the right time to provide clarity to our student-athletes so we can turn our efforts towards helping institutions reopen and ensuring a safe return to campus to start the academic year.”
The NSIC said in a release it will “explore meaningful opportunities and experiences for fall student-athletes in the spring”, and that it would “continue to monitor the landscape and conditions surrounding the pandemic; locally, regionally and nationally, and make any decisions or announcements as necessary.”
The decision means there will be no football, volleyball, soccer or cross country this fall. And it means basketball, wrestling and indoor track won’t start their seasons, which usually begin in November, until after the end of the year. Coaches said Thursday they were still awaiting further details on when they can begin practice.
Athletes will be allowed to opt out without losing their 2020-21 scholarship, and fall athletes will only use up a year of eligibility if their season goes forward in the spring (and the individual participates). NSIC schools will not be allowed to seek non-sanctioned games independently during the suspended time period.
Augustana athletic director Josh Morton had said the Vikings wanted to pursue a fall season if possible, even after fall championships were canceled, but recognized the situation the entire conference found themselves in thanks to the NCAA’s coronavirus mandates.
“We agree with and support the NSIC board of directors’ decision to suspend competition through Dec. 31 as the conference determined that we couldn’t find a safe path forward to play this fall,” Morton said. “The health and well-being of our student-athletes, coaches, staff and the entire community is and must always be our top priority.”
The Augustana and USF football teams were both coming off playoff appearances, hoping to go back in 2020. Cougars running back Gabe Watson is a potential NFL prospect, and could now be faced with a difficult decision in the spring.
The cancellation of volleyball and soccer will be painful, too. The NSIC is a powerhouse in volleyball, putting several teams in the national playoffs every year and winning regular national championships.
“We are truly disappointed for our student-athletes, who will not have the opportunity to compete in sports during the fall,” said USF athletic director Pam Gohl. “Today is a difficult time for them as they have committed so much time and energy to their respective sports. Clearly this decision has an impact on so many people and my heart goes out to them. Our goal remains to try and provide opportunities to compete, learn and take advantage of new experiences at USF.”
Northern State athletic director Josh Moon asked for support from the Wolves community as NSU faces the fall. The Wolves have been preparing to move into $33 million Dacotah Bank Stadium and debut under new coach Mike Schmidt.
“Right now, more than ever, we need Wolves Nation to help our student-athletes and coaches through this unprecedented time,” Moon said. “Messages of encouragement through social media, continued scholarship support, and just being the best fans in the country when we return to competition means a lot to us all.
“Today’s decision brings up many questions,” Moon went on. “However, our mission remains the same: to help our student-athletes achieve their academic and athletic goals, and provide them with the best experience in all of NCAA Division II.”
Mike Aldrich, football coach at Minot State and formerly the coach at Augustana, said the postponement of the fall season is just another challenge in a long line of them since spring.
“We viewed these challenges as opportunities and will continue to do so,” Aldrich said. “The momentum Minot State football has created will continue to grow and when we are able to get back on the field and compete, we will be stronger than ever. It’s not about the challenges we face but rather how we respond to them.”