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NAIA sets official return to play plan for fall sports

Northern football, volleyball Frontier Conference schedules to be revamped


Last updated 6/12/2020 at 8:55am

Havre Daily News/Colin Thompson

Construction of the press box at the new Montana State University-Northern football stadium continued this week. While the stadium is taking shape so, too, is a plan for NAIA fall sports, which includes new start dates. Northern AD Christian Oberquell also said the Frontier Conference will vote on new schedules in accordance with the NAIA's return to play plan next week.

For the better part of four months now, it's pretty much been assumed that, if there is a Montana State University-Northern football season this fall, it's going to look quite different. And not just because the Lights will hopefully be playing in their shiny, brand new, on-campus stadium that's currently under construction.

No, the season is going to look different because the coronavirus pandemic has jolted the sports world, and it's not over, not by a long stretch. And while, in Montana, the coronavirus is currently at a rate in which the Montana University System is fully intending to return to on-campus instruction this fall, albeit with a different schedule, on-campus instruction is also key to the return of sports to the Frontier Conference.

And, the NAIA has already set guidelines for what an upcoming football season will be allowed to look like, including teams can start practice no earlier than Aug. 15, and the first of a nine-game schedule can't be played until Sept. 12. Volleyball also can't start practicing until Aug. 15, but their season will be allowed to start one week earlier.

For Northern football, those guidelines mean, MSU-N already has two home games off the schedule. Northern was set to open the season Aug. 29 at home against Arizona Christian. But MSU-N athletic director Christian Oberquell said Thursday that the ACU game has been re-scheduled for the 2022 season. The new start date also means Northern's Frontier-opener against Southern Oregon, originally set for Sept. 5, has been moved.

Of course, with the new NAIA guidelines for the upcoming football season, the Frontier schedule was going to have to be altered, Oberquell said, and nothing is set in stone as of yet.

"We hopefully will make our final decision during Tuesday's Frontier Conference meeting," Oberquell said. "And we'll present that decision to the presidents during their meeting on Thursday."

Based on what the NAIA is allowing, Oberquell said their are two possible schedules for both football and volleyball.

"For football, we have a nine-game schedule where some teams will play five home games and others (including Northern) would get four. There's also a proposed schedule that's an eight-game conference schedule, where we would re-do the whole thing and everybody plays four home games and four road games."

Oberquell said with either schedule, Northern will now play its first two games of the season on the road, starting with a visit to Montana Tech Sept. 12.

"Volleyball has two different scenarios as well," Oberquell said. "There's a 15-game conference schedule proposed, and a 20-game conference schedule where everybody plays each other four times, including back-to-back nights. Both schedules will allow for non-conference games that first week of the season."

Non-conference football games like Northern's scheduled visit from Arizona Christian however, are out. Most likely, with either proposal, teams will just play a conference schedule of either nine or eight games and call it a season.

In the NAIA's fall plan, announced late last week, it not only said that schools can't start practicing until Aug. 14, but they must be cleared to return to the fields and courts by local and state health officials.

Until Aug. 14, no teams are allowed to practice, although the organization's release does mention that "conditioning" is allowed, as long as it does not include actual technical practice or training.

Below is the full NAIA return to play plan.

1. Return to Play Threshold

The COP Executive Committee approved the use of a threshold system as a guideline for determining return to play. The threshold goal is for about half the participating institutions in each sport to receive clearance from local authorities to return to competition before the season can begin. For example, NAIA football has 95 participating institutions. When half (47) of these programs gain clearance from authorities to play, the NAIA football season will be authorized to begin.

The rationale for this decision is that a significant number of institutions need to participate to offer student-athletes a significant competitive and championship-caliber experience. Additionally, the fewer the number of participating programs, the higher the likelihood for scheduling challenges leading to increased travel costs and missed class time.

2. Start Dates

Based on input from NAIA presidents, ADs, commissioners, athletics trainers and health care professionals, the COP Executive Committee approved the recommendation of practice and competition start dates for each sport. The practice start date for all sports, will be Saturday, Aug. 15. As a result, from today through Aug. 14, any activities deemed practice by the NAIA are strictly prohibited.

We know many NAIA campuses may be engaging in conditioning activities now or plan to as we get closer to Aug. 15. These conditioning activities, as long as they are not "practices," are not restricted and can take place at any time, in keeping with any institutional guidelines.

Beginning on Aug. 15, student-athletes may practice consistent with any health and safety protocols your institution deems necessary. While practices can begin August 15, only individuals identified with your institution can participate in these practices. No scrimmages, exhibitions, or competitions of any kind that involve individuals not identified with your institution may take place prior to the competition start date listed below.

Competition start dates are as follows:

• All sports except football: Sept. 5 (providing three weeks of practice prior to competition)

• Football: Sept. 12 (providing four weeks of practice prior to competition.)

Please note: These start dates apply to all sports that schedule practices or competitions in the fall, regardless of when the regular season is played.

The rationale behind the selection of these dates is to provide an adequate acclimatization, conditioning and practice period prior to competition for each sport, while minimizing the need for student-athletes to return to campus early. Establishing start dates also creates a more level playing field for all institutions that are able to compete this fall.

3. Maximum Contests Allowed

With the delayed start dates, there are fewer weeks to complete the season. As a result, the COP Executive Committee approved a reduction in the maximum number of contests as follows:

• Cross Country: 7 meets, down from 8,

• Football: 9 games, down from 11,

• Men's and Women's Soccer: 14 games, down from 18,

• Women's Volleyball: 22 dates, down from 28.

Havre Daily News/Colin Thompson

Construction of the press box at the new Montana State University-Northern football stadium continued this week. While the stadium is taking shape so, too, is a plan for NAIA fall sports, which includes new start dates. Northern AD Christian Oberquell also said the Frontier Conference will vote on new schedules in accordance with the NAIA's return to play plan next week.

The reductions are proportional to the shortened seasons and are consistent with recent feedback from presidents, athletics directors, and commissioners expressing a desire to reduce regular season costs.

Currently, the NAIA intends to host all fall national championship events as currently scheduled. Obviously we cannot predict what will happen in the next six months, but we are optimistic that the championships will be hosted as planned.

Finally, we know the health and safety of our student-athletes is imperative if we are to host fall sports. The national office and the COP Executive Committee are currently examining various options for health and safety protocols, including testing and screening, and will share decisions related to these areas as soon as they are made.

While our focus is currently on fall sports, we know there are already concerns related to the winter sport season. At this time, there are no planned changes for winter sports. We will begin to evaluate the possible impact of COVID-19 on the winter season and prioritize any decisions that will help our institutions prepare for possible adjustments, if necessary.


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