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NSIC makes the call: No fall

Conference cancels fall competition, championships; suspends all sports competition through December

Independent file photo SMSU’s Jenna Walczak (3) and Lydia Sussner (8) go up for a block during their Nov. 5, 2019 match against Wayne State College. The NSIC announced on Thursday the cancellation of fall sports and the suspension of all competition through the end of December due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

MARSHALL — There won’t be any squeaking of shoes on the hardwood floors of the R/A Facility or the PE Gymnasium. Tanner the stallion and rider Teegan Wyffels won’t be leading the charge of Mustang football players onto Mattke Field at the Schwan Regional Event Center. And the distinct chatter between players and coaches during competition or the roar of the hometown fans will be silenced.

The rest of this year at Southwest Minnesota State University and its Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference opponents will have a completely different feel to it. After the announcement came on Tuesday that the Big Ten will be postponing all fall sports and the Pac-12 calling off all competition, including basketball, through the end of 2020, it was Division II’s turn Thursday, as the NSIC decided to cancel fall sports and its championships as well as suspend all competition through Dec. 31, 2020.

“Our hearts and thoughts go out to our fall sports student-athletes,” SMSU Director of Athletics Chris Hmielewski said. “Our job as an administration and institution is to support them and provide them with the best experience possible. Our department, coaches and staff members are deeply committed to our student-athletes’ experience and making it beneficial for all of them.”

Mustangs football coach Cory Sauter added the health and safety of their student-athletes was paramount and there was just too much uncertainty and difficulty surrounding the ability to successfully conduct a season and understands it was a tough decision that was made.

“Obviously, the health and safety of our student-athletes is the No. 1 priority. There was just too much uncertainty with the conference being in five states and the nature of our sports that the requirements to be able to have any sort of competition this fall made it difficult to achieve safely,” Sauter said. “We understand why the decision was made, but it’s still never easy to swallow tough news like this. But we will try and turn this into a positive, that’s been our main focus [this afternoon].”

The NSIC initially decided to delay the start of the fall sports season by two weeks on July 27, with a reduction in the number of weeks of the season and number of competitions to allow more time for campuses to reopen safely. The NCAA Board of Governors then directed all institutions and conferences to meet specific requirements such as regular testing, the ability for student-athletes to opt out of participation and adhering to the return-to-sport guidelines from the NCAA Sport Science Institute as well as federal, state and local guidelines related to COVID-19. Those requirements, along with the NCAA Division II Presidents Council’s decision to cancel NCAA fall championships and the large uncertainty and limitations with providing a safe and healthy environment for student-athletes made it no longer feasible, according to NSIC Commissioner Erin Lind.

“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,” Lind said in a press release from the conference. “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.”

So what’s next for the Mustangs and the other 15 teams that make up the NSIC? The consolation for SMSU’s canceled fall is teams will be allowed to practice during the coming months, with hopes of returning in the spring. What that will look like is yet to be seen, but Hmielewski said they will meet next week to determine the outlook of the practice schedules for their programs.

“It’s a very fluid situation, but as a conference and an institution we’ll continue to assess COVID-19 throughout the fall,” Hmielewski said. “For winter and spring sports, the practice schedule won’t really change but for fall sports we will be meeting next week to determine what practices will look like and coaches will declare whether it will be a championship or non-championship season. The number of hours and under what season they will be competing in is yet to be determined.”

Sauter added he is hoping they will still be able to conduct a lot of the same things they typically do in the fall in terms of non-competition and that they can provide an avenue for their players to continue to grow and develop their skills.

“Obviously we will be getting more clarity from the institution but it would be great if we are able to meet, lift, do some position work and practice. We have a lot of young players and true freshmen that will be in the mix and this will be a great opportunity for them to close that gap and continue to grow and develop,” Sauter said. “We would be excited to get on the field; it’s also a great way for our student-athletes to release anxiety and tension they have with the COVID-19 pandemic going on and use it in a constructive way.”

SMSU cross country and track and field coach Kirk Nauman said all they can do is adapt with the situation and figure things out together.

“There are a lot of unknowns, especially with who can host from Division I to Division III, NAIA and all of the other conferences, but the best thing that we can do is to be nimble,” Nauman said. “The schedules will come together; right now, we all have a lot to figure out, but the coaches will work together to make things fly.”

Mustangs volleyball coach Terry Culhane said they are unsure what a possible spring season would look like and could potentially run into conflicts with graduation or crowded practice facilities.

“We don’t know about the spring. There is talk of having some part of spring, but we just have to hope that opportunity comes,” Culhane said. “It’s different in college because some kids might be in their final semester in the fall and then graduate or have conflicts with the spring, so things will be different.”

The financial impact will certainly be challenging to overcome. Hmielewski said they’ll take a hit with the loss of ticket revenues and sponsorships, and need to get creative as a department and continue to rely on the support of their community.

“From a financial aspect, it’ll be a loss between our ticket revenue and our corporate sponsorships and other things, but our goal is to continue to work and fundraise. We’re fortunate the Marshall community has been there for us and we’ll all work together to go out there and do our best,” Hmielewski said. “There are things that are beyond our control but we will need to get creative and put our staff out there and continue to assess but seek support of the business community and the community in Southwest Minnesota.”

As SMSU begins a new semester in the coming weeks, Sauter added while it’ll have a much different look, they know the strengthening of relationships between coaches and student-athletes and the development of players while keeping them safe will remain a constant.

“It’s going to be a unique fall,” Sauter said. “We haven’t been through one that doesn’t include football, so we need to continue to invest a lot of time in each one of our kids on the roster because they need us now more than ever.”

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