What’s next for fall college sports beyond football?

NCAA president Mark Emmert confirmed Thursday that the NCAA won’t hold Division I fall sports championships. Does that actually mean they’re canceled, or just postponed? We don’t know yet.

The NCAA announced Aug. 5 that if participation for a sport dropped to 50% or below because of coronavirus concerns, the sport’s championship wouldn’t be held. However, the Division I board of governors will meet Aug. 21 to discuss the possibility of moving fall championships to spring.

Most of the attention, of course, has been on football. The FBS schools, controlled by the Power 5 conferences, will make their own decisions on their championship. But the FCS schools will wait to see if they’ll compete in the NCAA’s 24-team playoff bracket in the spring.

Now, let’s look at women’s volleyball, field hockey, men’s and women’s soccer and cross country.

How surprised were the sports to have their NCAA championships tabled for 2020?

They weren’t. Once the NCAA announced the 50% threshold requirement, everyone was doing the math about which conferences weren’t going to compete. It was clear with FCS football on Aug. 7. When the Big Ten and Pac-12 announced Tuesday they wouldn’t have fall sports, it was all but inevitable for every other fall sport, too. The Big South’s and Big East’s announcements Wednesday cemented it.

Coaches and administrators have been trying to plan for what will happen.

“Sure, I think it’s feasible,” Princeton women’s soccer coach Sean Driscoll said of moving to the spring. “I just know that there are kids and coaches and administrators across the country who are willing to do whatever they can to give all of their student-athletes a fruitful experience.”

Kelly Sheffield, whose Wisconsin volleyball team was national runner-up to Stanford last season, said his team is relieved to at least have clarity about the fall.

“For my players, I think there’s optimism there will be a spring championship,” he said. “Now, if they were told the season is canceled and they won’t have any chance to play this school year, that would be devastating for them.”

What about the leagues that haven’t postponed fall sports?

That’s another complicating issue with all of this. For now, some conferences — including the ACC, the Big 12 and the SEC — say they’re going ahead with fall sports. But if the NCAA championships move to the spring, will these leagues move their fall seasons, too? Or — while it would be far from ideal — would they compete in their regular seasons in the fall and then return for a spring NCAA championship event? Would the NCAA even allow that?

Representatives from the ACC, Big 12 and SEC said Thursday they are still figuring all this out. They previously said that if they played football in the fall, they would play their other fall sports then, too.

If NCAA championships are held in spring, will they stay where they were originally scheduled?

That’s also to be determined.

The NCAA field hockey championship was to be held Nov. 20-22 in Norfolk, Virginia. The men’s and women’s cross country championships were scheduled for Nov. 21 in Stillwater, Oklahoma. The Women’s College Cup was set for Dec. 4-6 in Cary, North Carolina, with the men’s College Cup set for Dec. 11-13 in Santa Barbara, California. And the women’s volleyball final four was to be Dec. 17-19 in Omaha, Nebraska.

“Now, if they were told the season is canceled and they won’t have any chance to play this school year, that would be devastating for them.”

Wisconsin women’s volleyball head coach Kelly Sheffield

Nebraska volleyball coach John Cook told the Lincoln Journal Star on Tuesday that the Big Ten volleyball coaches have been working on a schedule. Their hope would be to start in February and have the NCAA tournament in May. Cook added that this information was shared with city officials in Omaha. The city has had sellout crowds the three previous times it has hosted women’s volleyball’s final four (2006, ’08, ’15) and likely would want to keep the event if it is possible.

Would there be regular-season facilities issues with fall sports moving?

Probably nothing that can’t be handled. Volleyball is the fall’s only indoor sport and in many cases would have to share arena space with men’s and women’s basketball among other winter sports (including men’s volleyball at the schools where that’s played). So it could be more logistically complicated.

“Facilities are going to be an issue really everywhere,” Colorado volleyball coach Jesse Mahoney said. “As you jam sports into all the same season, you’re going to run into that across the board. I think everyone is going to be able to be accommodating and adjust.”

For a sport like soccer, Iowa women’s coach Dave Dilanni said it is “pretty low-demand in terms of what’s needed to run and organize a game. So as long as facilities are available, you’re not having to deal with tens of thousands of fans or game-event management.”

What about the winter weather for the fall outdoor sports?

They already encounter some of this in their normal seasons with competitions in November and December. Ed Eyestone, coach of the defending national champion BYU men’s cross country team, said runners are used to adjusting to weather extremes. During his own career, he, at times, ran in sub-zero temperatures.

“You just dress accordingly and cover any exposed skin with olive oil and try to finish as quickly as possible,” he said. “You have heaters in the tents and minimize the time outdoors.”

Will there be changes in the format of seasons and championships?

It is possible, although to what extent is uncertain. Regular-season competition probably will be focused on conference foes and maybe very nearby non-conference foes.

The 64-team fields for the volleyball and women’s soccer NCAA tournaments, and the 48-team bracket for men’s soccer, might be compacted. They may have more teams come to one site and play multiple rounds to reduce travel, such as a site for a sweet 16 instead of four regionals.

Field hockey’s NCAA bracket has 18 teams. Perhaps it could be reduced to 16 (removing the two opening-round matches) and have all the games in one place.

Eyestone said runners can adjust to competing in cross country races in, say, January-March while also training and competing in indoor/outdoor track and field. He said a spring cross country season could be short but sufficient: “maybe a conference meet, a regional meet and a national meet.”

How might spring seasons impact fall sports seniors who are going pro?

Since the volleyball season typically ends in December, top seniors often finish school then and go play in professional leagues overseas the following January or February. But Sheffield said he thinks most seniors would stay for a spring NCAA season and tournament. Plus, they also might not have the typical professional options in other countries because of the pandemic.

For men’s and women’s soccer, while it affects a relatively small number of players, they might face choosing between playing a final college season or reporting to training camps in MLS or the NWSL in March.

The college pipeline is a bigger deal for women’s soccer, where more than a dozen rookies played in the recent eight-team NWSL Challenge Cup. And the next NWSL draft, traditionally held in January, is particularly significant. In addition to expansion Racing Louisville, which will create more job openings, the draft is headlined by two-time national player of the year Catarina Macario from Stanford.

Could student-athletes just opt out of 2020-21 entirely to avoid the uncertainties?

It’s a possibility, as we’ve seen already with football. Arizona State’s entire swimming and diving teams will redshirt the 2020-21 season, which typically runs from September through March.

But who’s to say right now how certain things are for 2021-22? And for the elite athletes who do have a chance to compete professionally here or in other countries, they may not want to delay that another year.

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