The 2020 season is gone for volleyball and cross-country teams and delayed for basketball teams at UAA and UAF, the latest fallout for athletics as COVID-19 continues to spread across the nation.
The Great Northwest Athletic Conference, which counts both Alaska schools among its 10 members, on Friday suspended all sports through Nov. 30. It will decide by Oct. 15 whether to suspend sports beyond Nov. 30.
“This is an unprecedented time for intercollegiate athletics,” UAF athletic director Keith Champagne said in a prepared statement. He asked athletes and fans “to remain strong and hopeful over the next several months.”
Fall athletes got a glimmer of hope from the GNAC: The conference said it will consider moving fall sports to next spring.
Friday’s decision sidelines two of UAA’s most successful programs. The volleyball team is coming off a 23-7 season that ended in the second round of the NCAA Division II playoffs, and the cross-country team placed eighth in the women’s team competition and had two runners in the top 10 at last season’s national championships.
“Everyone’s pretty disappointed,” said Ellen Floyd, a junior on the UAA volleyball team. “We hope for an actual season this spring.”
Asked about the prospects of a spring season, head volleyball coach Chris Green crossed his fingers. He’s rooting for a spring season that will include the NCAA tournament.
The NCAA still plans to hold championships events this fall for volleyball and other fall sports. But the GNAC is the fifth NCAA Division II conference to suspend fall sports, and Green hopes there may be power in those numbers.
“If enough teams can’t play this fall, the NCAA may rethink that,” he said. “I think there’s a chance.”
Basketball teams will start practice about a month later than usual, provided the GNAC decides to move forward with winter sports. By Nov. 30 of last year, the UAA men’s team had played eight games and one exhibition game and the women had played six games and two exhibition games.
For many members of the UAA cross-country team, this is the second straight season they’ve lost to the novel coronavirus. Most cross-country runners also compete in track and field, and the 2020 outdoor season was scrapped last spring.
It’s been a stressful time for UAA’s international athletes, who constitute a large percentage of the cross-country team. The Trump administration last week said it would strip visas from international students if their classes moved exclusively online during the pandemic.
That policy was rescinded this week.
“They were pretty nervous,” cross-country coach Ryan McWilliams said. “That was a very huge change for a lot of them. They’ve structured four or five years of their lives on being here that whole time because it’s hard to go back and forth. ... So the prospect of that was pretty nerve-wracking.”
UAA and UAF are among 10 permanent members of the GNAC, which has member schools in Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Montana, Idaho and British Columbia.
At least four other Division II conferences have called off fall sports — the California Collegiate Athletic Association, the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference and the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference.
The GNAC and CCAA are two of the three conferences that make up the West Region. The third member, the PacWest Conference, hasn’t announced a decision about fall sports.
“This was not a decision taken lightly but one the Board believes is in the best interests of student-athletes and staff,” GNAC commissioner Dave Haglund said in a prepared statement. “There is no greater priority than the health and well-being of our student-athletes and this action is reflective of the GNAC’s commitment to this prevailing principle.
“We understand that many student-athletes will be disappointed and saddened by this news, particularly our seniors, and we have profound empathy for everyone affected by this decision, including nonconference opponents. We can only ask for their thoughtful understanding during these challenging and unprecedented times.”
The Ivy League last week became the first Division I conference to suspend varsity sports through the end of the 2020. The Pac-12 and Big Ten have decided teams can play conference games, but not nonconference games.
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