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A New Frontier

The schedule is now set for the upcoming Frontier Conference football season


Havre Daily News/Colin Thompson

Last Thursday, the presidents of the Frontier Conference approved a plan for the league to play an eight-game season starting Sept. 12. The NAIA announced that schools can play up to a nine-game season as part of their return-to-play plan due to COVID-19. But the Frontier opted for an eight-game slate, which will give each school an equal amount of home and away games. Montana State University-Northern will open the season at Montana Tech and play its first home game Sept. 26.

If there's going to be a 2020 Montana State University-Northern football season, there will be two certainties. First, the Lights will be playing in their brand new on-campus stadium at some point. That's the good news. Secondly though, Northern will play just four home games, and the 2020 season will be markedly different because COVID-19 is just not going away. And that's the bad news.

Yes, the 2020 season, if it happens, will have to somehow coexist with the coronavirus pandemic. What that means right now, as June draws to a close, is anybody's guess, except for the fact that the Frontier Conference, the NAIA and Northern, have revamped the season.

Several weeks ago, the NAIA put out its return-to-play fall sports plan. What that meant for the football season is that it can't start until Aug. 15 for practice and Sept. 12 for games. The NAIA also capped the number of games a team can play at nine. Those are the two biggest parts of the plan, and from there, the Frontier took those guidelines and went a step further, deciding to make the season an eight-game schedule, with every team playing each other once, and one game counting as a non-conference matchup.

For Northern, that means a much different schedule than the one released last spring. Gone from that schedule is a home-opening game against Arizona Christian which was slated for Aug. 29, as well as a conference-opening game at home against Southern Oregon Sept. 5. The Raiders will still be Northern's home-opener, but that game won't come until Sept. 26.

Meanwhile, the new schedule has the Lights opening the season at Montana Tech, in what will be considered a non-conference game. In week two, the Lights will travel to Caldwell, Idaho, to face defending Frontier champion College of Idaho Sept. 19, before making their home debut Sept. 26 against the Raiders. Northern is hoping that will also be the debut of their new stadium.

The Lights will also play at home Oct. 3 when they host Carroll College, before the bye week comes Oct. 10. The second half of the season starts with the Lights traveling to Eastern Oregon Oct. 17 and Montana Western Oct. 24. Northern then plays its third home game of the year on Halloween when the Lights host Rocky Mountain College. Nov. 7 then marks the final game of the regular season, where the Lights will host Montana Tech.

"I think there's a couple of benefits for us to the eight-game schedule," Northern head coach Andrew Rolin said. "I think having one of those games be a non-conference game within our conference makes it very fair. It balances everything out evenly. The other thing I like is that, it gives everybody an equal amount of home games, so there's little disparity with that schedule."

If the league had voted on the proposed nine-game schedule, the Lights would have still had just four homes games.

"Everybody wants to play as much football as possible, and nine his more than eight," Rolin said. "But at the same time, I believe the eight-game schedule is more fair, and I think that's why it passed in the end."

And no matter how many games it is, playing football is the goal. And Northern is already beginning the process of moving forward. The Lights are holding voluntary summer workouts, and Rolin said about 20 players are currently in town. He said they are taking a phased approach to bringing the 2020 team back to Havre,

"We've got about 20 here now, and we're taking every precaution," Rolin said. "They get their temperature checked every morning, they've been through health screenings, and some of them have even been tested already. We're doing everything we can to do this safely.

"We're kind of phasing in bringing kids back," he continued. "Right now, it's hard to have a lot of kids here because the dorms are closed. But we'll start to see more kids come back in July, and then we'll try to have the whole 2020 team here by the beginning of August."

August will be a big month, too. Fall camp will not be allowed to begin until Aug. 15, but, Rolin said, that should be an advantage for teams because, if they can get all their players to campus, then they'll have two weeks to prepare before the official first day of fall practices.

"I think you'll be able to get a lot of your conditioning and things like that in," Rolin said. "It will be much more like a six-week training camp, similar to what the NCAA is doing. So that will be beneficial for everybody, especially since everybody missed spring ball this year."

Of course, a lot has to happen between now and Aug. 15, and again before Northern's first game Sept. 12 in Butte. A lot of plans have to be put in place, and things have to go right with the virus itself. But, as much as there is still an unknown when it comes to the 2020 season, Rolin remains optimistic, and now that summer is officially here, he says the excitement of the upcoming season is growing.

"I think everybody is just itching to get out there," Rolin said. "Everybody wants to see fall sports, and sports in general come back, and obviously football is a huge part of that. And our kids are no different. They are itching to put the pads on again, to be together as a team again and see how good we can be this year. So I can't wait for that day to come, when we can all be together and when we're playing football again."


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