A week after pushing its fall football schedule back to the spring, the Big Sky Conference did the same to all of its fall sports, announcing in a press release Thursday morning that “due to ongoing concerns related to the COVID-19 global pandemic, the Big Sky Conference is postponing all competition for its fall sports to spring 2021.”
The move affects cross country, soccer and volleyball, as well as the fall exhibition seasons for softball, tennis and golf.
Conference athletic directors recommended the move before the Big Sky’s Presidents’ Council met Wednesday to confirm it.
“While I am confident that our conference is making the right decision for the health and safety of our student-athletes, it breaks my heart knowing how disappointing this will be to all of them who were eagerly anticipating the opportunity to compete this fall,” Big Sky Commissioner Tom Wistrcill said in the press release.
The conference announced on Aug. 7 that its football schedule would be played in the spring, but said at that time that a decision about other fall sports hadn’t been made yet.
In an interview Thursday, Idaho State athletic director Pauline Thiros said that it became apparent that several Big Sky schools wouldn’t be able to participate in a fall season due to state regulations and the demands of COVID-19 protocols, necessitating the move to spring.
“We wanted to get the final opportunity to just really see if we could execute the testing protocols and create a safe environment, which I think that many of us can,” Thiros said. “But in the end, it came down to the fact that many Big Sky schools, at least three, aren’t even in a position to practice yet. So any conference season would be lacking in opponents on some level, and we don’t feel like that would be a fair and meaningful experience for our student-athletes.”
On Monday, Eastern Washington became the first Big Sky school to independently suspend fall sports.
“I don’t know if the action they took on Monday really impacted the decision,” Thiros said. “I think by that time, the writing was really on the wall. We all knew before Monday that Eastern wasn’t in a position to practice and play at a level that would allow them to compete, and we had other schools in that position as well.”
As with football, the Big Sky is pushing to move NCAA championships to the spring in the other fall sports as well.
“Our efforts in the conference office now will focus on doing everything within our power to make their spring season the best that it possibly can be, which includes advocating for their NCAA championships to be held then,” Wistrcill said in the conference’s press release.
Previously, the conference had pushed the start date for volleyball, soccer and cross country back to Sept. 18 and made adjustments to schedules in an effort to mitigate the effects of the pandemic while still having a season.
Conference teams in fall sports may continue with workouts and other athletic activities at their own discretion.
Idaho State’s volleyball team was scheduled to start practice Friday, with the soccer team beginning next week.
“We expect the NCAA to give us some additional guidance on what our countable athletically-related activities (CARA) can be, in terms of the hours per week,” Thiros said. “Right now, however, our teams are able to proceed under the normal CARA hours, as if they were going to be an in-season, competitive team. ... We’re going to allow our kids to do what they have been hoping to do since March, and get on the court or get on the field and have some activity, but of course that will not be happening at the same high level it would if you were preparing for a competitive season.”
Moving sports to the spring comes with numerous challenges. Thiros pointed out Thursday that Idaho State’s indoor track teams compete in Holt Arena, which the football team will need for practices and games heading into a potential spring season.
Another potential pitfall is if both cross country and outdoor track compete in the spring. Distance runners on the track team typically run both.
“We’re going to have to be thoughtful about that and do the best we can,” Thiros said. “The other challenge, simply, is our game operations staff and our medical staff, rather than handling sports in segments, they’re going to be all in one semester. So I would anticipate a huge workload and a lot of thoughtful planning that’s going to have to go into staggering these schedules.”
The conference also confirmed that Big Sky schools will not be able to play non-conference football games this fall. Although the Big Sky pushed its conference schedule to the spring last week, some schools, like Idaho, were planning to explore playing non-conference games this fall. Thursday’s announcement ends those plans.
Idaho State had previously announced that no matter the conference’s final decision, the Bengals wouldn’t play non-conference football games this fall.
With no fall sports, winter sports — men’s and women’s basketball and men’s and women’s indoor track and field — are now on the clock. The conference said that decisions regarding those sports will be made at a later date.