The National Junior College Athletic Association announced an adjusted “plan of action” for the upcoming academic year Monday, moving the majority of fall athletic competition to the spring semester.
All close-contact fall sports will shift seasons, with only cross country and women’s tennis championships remaining on their originally scheduled dates this fall. Also, the start of the winter competition season has been pushed back to January.
“Our greatest focus is and always has been providing the best opportunities for our student-athletes,” NJCAA President Dr. Christopher Parker said in a statement released late Monday afternoon. “Through a unified effort from our Presidential Advisory Council, the Board of Regents, and leadership staff, our most recent plan of action provides a path that keeps our student-athletes competing at the highest level with proper safety measures in place. As we move forward as an association, we will continue to provide opportunities for our student-athletes, coaches, and all those involved with the NJCAA to be safe and successful.”
Erin Foley, director of athletics at Howard Community College, said that until the last week she had been hopeful a fall season was going to be possible.
“Honestly I was feeling good in June through that first week of July. Seeing things in Maryland getting better, things reopening … I felt like we might actually be able to make it work,” Foley said. “But then the last week or so, as things have started changing again across the country, it became obvious that we were going to have to shift gears. It’s been a very fluid process.
“At the end of the day, all of us are just trying to do what is in the best interest of the health and safety of our student-athletes. There are a lot of factors in play.”
Anne Arundel Community College Athletic Director Duane Herr expressed a similar sentiment in regards to priorities moving forward.
“The health and well-being of our student-athletes and our ability to provide the safest possible environment for competition is our main focus,” Herr said in a press release Monday night. “We will continue to support our student-athletes to the best of our ability through this transition, including continued remote academic, mental and fitness support until we can be together again in person.”
Even with a sport like cross country maintaining its fall status, there are still hills to climb. Many community colleges compete at meets hosted by four-year colleges, some of which have already made decisions to cancel races.
NJCAA Region XX features 23 schools, the majority of which are in the Baltimore metropolitan area, and spans three states.
“I believe it was the correct thing to do,” Carroll Community College athletic director Bill Kelvey said in an email. “There are many issues to consider such as transportation, daily health checks, game safety (players, coaches, staff, officials), and the possibility of the season ending at any time due to the virus. Hopefully, this will allow more time for a vaccine or treatments that will allow a healthy return to athletics in the spring.”
Foley said there are ongoing talks about creating an adjusted cross country schedule in an effort to provide athletes with enough opportunities to secure postseason qualifying times.
“While the NJCAA has announced that the cross country championships are still being held this fall, there are still a lot of considerations in play. It’s going to take some real coordinating between the Region XX schools to see if we can figure this out together,” she said.
With different states potentially having different restrictions in place, coordinating travel is one of the big areas of focus at the moment.
“Traveling, particularly out of state, is definitely a concern for everyone and I know in the past our cross country teams have traveled out of state,” Dimitrios Jelen-Joy, Harford CC’s athletic compliance and student athlete success manager, said. “Athlete safety is the top priority and I think there are still a lot of things being worked out. Things are constantly changing. ... It’s a much different situation than it was even a week ago.”
The national championship rotation for cross country this fall has the NJCAA Division I and II meets scheduled to be held in Iowa and the Division III meet slated to take place in Massachusetts.
For Herr, that raises more questions.
“If you’re going to compete in a championship season, but you can’t travel to a national tournament, what does that look like? How does that effect the student-athletic experience?” he said.
The NJCAA has a deadline of July 27 for colleges to notify the national office with its intentions in terms of athletic competition for the 2020-21 academic year. Should individual cross country programs, for example, decide not to continue with the fall season, they would have to make that decision in the next two weeks.
Director of Community College of Baltimore County Athletics Brian Farrell said Tuesday that he would be “engaged with our college leadership” on the topic this week and declined to comment further until after those meetings.
Considerations were given by the NJCAA toward moving cross country to the spring, but Foley said concerns about overlap with indoor and outdoor track played a role in the decision to keep it in the fall. Cross country and Division III women’s tennis teams are permitted to start practicing Aug. 1.
Under the current plan, while there will be no competition, the other NJCAA fall sports teams are still permitted 60 consecutive calendar days for practice and scrimmages from Aug. 15 to Nov. 15. Whether each program uses those practice and scrimmage opportunities is up to each institution and the regulations in place in their respective states.
Official practice for the spring championship season is scheduled to start Jan. 11 for volleyball, March 1 for football, and March 15 for men’s and women’s soccer.
With overlap now between seasons, some institutions are going to have to get creative with field and court space.
“For us, we have plenty of outdoor field space … it’s the court space that will be the challenge,” Foley said. “We just have the one gym [at Howard CC], so scheduling out time between volleyball, both basketball teams and the classes that use the gym will be interesting.”
And, with the delayed start, winter sports like basketball aren’t immune to scheduling obstacles either.
“Our regional competition is usually in a different state, in Western Pennsylvania. Sometimes in Virginia, we play some Delaware teams,” Herr said. “Our schedule is not necessarily made as a traditional four-year Division I schedule is, where you play your warmup games in the early portion and then you play your conference games. I’m pretty confident we can be creative in scheduling to allow for the competitions that matter most to happen in a reasonable time frame so that we can get into that postseason conversation.”
Capital sports reporter Katherine Fominykh contributed to this article.