Last week, the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC), which includes schools, such as Middlebury, Bates, Colby, and Williams, announced cancellation of all winter sports as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Given these institutional policies and calendar changes, the NESCAC Presidents have unanimously decided to cancel NESCAC conference competition, including conference championships, for the winter season,” a statement from NESCAC reads. “We understand this decision will disappoint many of our students, given the important role athletics plays in the student experience.”
The announcement comes to the disappointment of all NCAA athletes and coaches, particularly those within the Eastern Intercollegiate Ski Association (EISA), whose season is now in peril. The Ivy League has not yet made a formal decision on winter sports, but Harvard is likely out either way. Furthermore, the host site for national championships, Middlebury, will no longer be a viable option, so the NCAA is seeking alternative venues in the East for that event. But prospects for a national championship are growing slimmer by the day.
Peter Dodge, men’s head coach for Dartmouth College, said the impact of the NESCAC decision and interstate travel restrictions are presenting an extremely challenging set of circumstances, but all parties continue to move forward to salvage whatever they can of the season.
“We’re out for December,” said Dodge. “We have no training opportunities in December. And then, if we do come back to school and start a season, we won’t have activities until the middle of January.”
EISA continues to keep a working calendar for Nordic and alpine ski racing, but state, local, and institutional travel restrictions are proving difficult to overcome, said Dodge.
“As one of our coaches said in our weekly meeting, ‘We keep kicking the can down the road waiting for definitive answers but all the indicators are pointing to no.’ We’re all hopeful, and if we can have a race where we have two or three teams come, we’ll try to do that,” said Dodge. “We might have to have state races or regional races … but the chances of a full season is pretty much zero.”
For Dodge’s athletes, the focus has been on conditioning; some international athletes opted to remain in Europe, where they are training, and others will head to Colorado once the lifts start turning at Copper and other venues. Athletes in the East are also looking into programs facilitated by the clubs, such as Burke and Waterville, to fill the training gap.
Better in the West
Unlike New England, which is experiencing more rigid travel restrictions, some schools in the West have reason to be optimistic that they’ll at least be able to string together some solid regional races.
“We’re fully scheduled out with the exception of one or two races,” said University of Utah Head Coach JJ Johnson. “So we’re really trying to put a season together.”
Johnson said many schools are facing both short- and long-term budget battles, which could be more of a threat to the season than covid.
“We’re planning ahead, and as long as there is FIS racing and travel is permitted, we’re going to move forward,” said Johnson. “It is going to be tough with Alaska. I don’t think anyone can travel up there. We’re trying to move forward, but I think it’s going to be more of a divisional/regional season.”
Aspen (DU), Steamboat (CMC) and Park City (Utah/Westmister) are among the first stops scheduled on the RMISA calendar.
“It’s been all strength training this fall. We still haven’t been cleared to travel to train on snow,” Johnson said. “Now that they’ve brought football and basketball back (in the Pac-12), we’re trying to work through to see if we can travel before the end of November.”
For a small portion of NCAA racers, the 2020 Alpine National Championships, which are scheduled for Copper Mountain in November, will be an opportunity to get some racing under their belts.
“Normally, we’d be all over that, but some of our athletes won’t have had any skiing,” Johnson said. “We’ll have a couple of our Americans racing. Normally, we’d be on our way to Copper, but without having a lot of skiing, I don’t think we’ll have more than one or two (athletes at national champs).”
Some positive news
The NCAA recently announced that winter-sport student-athletes who compete during the 2020-21 season will receive an additional year of eligibility.
“Winter sport student-athletes who compete during 2020-21 in Division I will receive both an additional season of competition and an additional year in which to complete it,” a statement from the NCAA reads. “The same flexibility was provided to student-athletes after the spring season was canceled in 2020 and the fall season was seriously impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.”
“The pandemic will continue to impact winter sport seasons in ways we can’t predict. Council members opted to provide for winter sport student-athletes the same flexibility given spring and fall sports previously,” said council chair M. Grace Calhoun, athletics director at Pennsylvania. “The actions today ensure the continuation of local decision-making in the best interest of each institution and its student-athletes.”