The NAIA made its first major fall-season schedule readjustment late Tuesday night, announcing that championships for men's and women's soccer, cross country and volleyball will be moved to the spring because of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Crucially, however, the small-college sports governing body has given individual conferences the option of playing games and even holding conference championships in the fall if they deem it it safe to do so.
Those conferences that hold conference schedules in the fall will still be eligible for bids to the spring national tournaments through the normal selection process. The Crossroads League, home to Saint Francis, Huntington and Grace, had a meeting of its athletic directors Wednesday morning and is leaning in the direction of playing at least a partial fall schedule, though no official decision has been reached yet.
“I appreciate the autonomy from the NAIA to still allow the conferences the ability to play in the fall or move everything to the spring,” Grace athletic director Chad Briscoe said. “We (Crossroads League athletic directors) are all still of like mind of wanting to move forward for the fall in trying to play.”
The NAIA previously announced game reductions for all fall sports. With the decision to move the championships, however, Briscoe and Saint Francis athletic director Mike McCaffrey told The Journal Gazette they expect those limits to be reversed.
McCaffrey suggested that would mean enough games are available to have most of a conference schedule in the fall and then a few ramp-up games plus conference tournaments in the spring to give teams in the running for a national tournament spot a chance to get used to game competition again.
Above all, the athletic directors stressed that they are going to do everything they can to keep their athletes safe and engaged while doing what they can to set the athletes up for success.
“We were all devastated by the cancellation of our spring sports and the opportunities that (athletes) missed out on,” Huntington athletic director Lori Culler said. “We really want to try as much as possible to avoid having that happen to any of our other athletes or, heaven forbid, have it happen again to our spring sport athletes.
“We've all along in this planning process been told, 'Don't miss the good for the perfect.' Because no one's going to be perfect in what they figure out.”
While the NAIA made decisions on most of its fall sports, it delayed the choice on football until Friday. McCaffrey is skeptical the governing body will make a different decision than it did with other sports.
“I can't predict where they're going to go, but everything I'm seeing, everything that we're talking about, it's tough to say, 'We're going to move all these championships, but we're going to leave football,'” McCaffrey said. “It doesn't feel right from an equity and all these other standpoints. ... It would be tough to have one NAIA national championship staying in the fall and that being the highest-contact sport.”
McCaffrey said he still wants to be able to schedule some games regardless of the decision. The NAIA has reduced the maximum number of regular-season football games from 11 to nine.
Meanwhile, the Wolverine-Hoosier Athletic Conference, home of Indiana Tech, is also still deciding whether to have a fall season or move its conference schedules fully to spring. Presidents from the conference will meet Friday to discuss that decision further, according to Tech athletic director Jessie Biggs.
The good news, Biggs said, is that the athletes have proven adaptable to the changing situation.
“Our student-athletes, they just want the opportunity to play the sport they love,” said Biggs, who took over as the athletic director in June when Debbie Warren retired. “They're very receptive to having to change a couple of things or maybe operate differently if it gives them that chance. ... They're used to change.”
As for the Crossroads League, McCaffrey said official decisions on the fall schedule will likely come within seven to 10 days. He added that an additional hurdle has been created because the NAIA scrapped its testing standards for the virus when it moved its championships, so the conference will have to implement its own if it wants to play safely in the fall.
For athletic administrators in the area, such improvisation is becoming routine.
“It's almost like the soap opera, 'As the World Turns,'” Briscoe said, laughing. “It's 'As the NAIA Turns'. ... I feel like it's back when COVID hit. It's almost like a new press release every day.”