COLCHESTER -- Purple Knight fans will have to wait until 2021 to once again see their teams in action.
Athletic departments in Vermont colleges have started to break the news to their athletes, alumni, and fans over the last couple weeks that there will not be any competition for fall sports -- or even through the entire fall semester -- with Saint Michael’s College (SMC) being one of them.
On July 16, NCAA Division II’s Northeast-10 Conference (NE10) made an announcement which impacts the whole semester and member institution SMC. Its Council of Presidents chose to suspend all league-sanctioned competition and championships through December 31 -- not only postponing fall sports but causing its winter sports to have a delayed start to their seasons.
“This decision was not reached easily,” read a letter from St. Michael’s Director of Athletics Chris Kenny to the school’s student-athletes, “as the 14 member institutions have worked closely together for months on multiple scenarios, all the while staying up to speed on the latest medical guidance, COVID-19 data, state government regulations, NCAA policies/legislation, and resocialization efforts and guidelines for each member campus. The Conference is unified in its focus on the safety and wellbeing of its student-athletes and membership.”
The announcements throughout Vermont are consistent with those from a slew of other institutions of higher education throughout the country over the last month in light of safety concerns for collegiate participants, staff, and spectators surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.
Clear distinctions between “postponements” and “cancellations” were emphasized in some of the statements issued by conferences or individual colleges — noting that there is the likelihood that those sports that are traditionally played during the fall semester will instead be facilitated in the spring if circumstances permit.
The Board of Presidents for NCAA Division I’s America East Conference — of which the University of Vermont is a member — made the announcement on July 17 that all fall sports would be postponed. In a follow-up message posted online, Director of Athletics Jeff Shulman said a decision about winter sports — which includes men’s and women’s basketball and ice hockey — and playing the fall sports in the spring would be made at a later date.
Norwich University’s (NU) league, the Great Northeast Athletic Conference, announced July 20 that it would be postponing fall sports, but the Northfield, Vt. institution jumped ahead and released a message from President Col. Mark C. Anarumo on July 15 saying that NU “will not be participating in fall sports this year.”
Castleton University primarily participates in the Little East Conference. As of press time, neither the Little East nor Castleton had announced a decision regarding fall sports or the fall semester. However, the Eastern Collegiate Football Conference — in which the Spartans play for that individual sport — posted an update on its website July 14 saying that it would not be sponsoring a 2020 conference season. Schools are still permitted to make their own decisions whether or not to play scheduled games against league or non-league opponents.
Middlebury College was one of the first to see the fate of its fall determined as its New England Small College Athletics Conference cancelled its fall sports seasons this year on July 10. Individual institutions, however, were given the discretion to organize practices and alternative competition dependent on state and local health guidelines.
The North Atlantic Conference — which both Northern Vermont University Johnson and Lyndon’s athletic departments are members of — announced on July 20 that fall sports would not be sanctioned by the league. As of this story’s deadline, Vermont Technical College had not released any update about this upcoming semester.
With these decisions arise an abundance of questions pertaining to student-athletes’ athletic eligibility, athletics aid and scholarships and potential involvement in team-facilitated functions and gatherings.
The NE10 posted an extensive list of frequently asked questions — one of the answers saying that St. Michael’s and the rest of its members will honor its athletics aid agreements issued to student-athletes for the 2020-21 academic year “in accordance to the terms and conditions laid out in those agreements.” It also says that, under NCAA rules, if a student-athlete is not to participate in outside competition — that being against another institution — they will not lose a year of athletic eligibility.
Many colleges are preparing to have their fall athletes keep busy and involved with their respective sport, if they would like, in more than a club or intramural basis.
“Though competition will not be possible this fall, we plan to provide meaningful practice and skill development opportunities for our teams, as well as robust strength and conditioning programming,” said SMC Director of Athletics Chris Kenny in a letter sent to St. Michael’s student-athletes on the 16th.
While the news may not have been surprising to the student-athletes, it was still saddening -- but also understandable.
"I am certainly very disappointed that our fall season is cancelled," said Petra Bajuk, an incoming first-year field hockey player from Colchester. "However, I appreciate the measures St. Mike's and the NE10 are taking to protect athlete safety. I am very hopeful for the possibility of a spring season."
Kenny said in a Monday call with Sun staff that he does not expect to have any layoffs with staff and that he hasn’t heard of student-athletes who were intending to go to SMC instead decide to take classes online or at a community college.
“In these uncertain times, I think that students are considering a wide range of options,” he said. “Obviously, our hope is that we get our students here and get them involved in our programming and our campus community. The academic experience on campus is first and foremost of paramount importance.”
He also said that he doesn’t mind the potential logistical hassle the college might run into with combining fall and spring sports at the same time during the second semester.
“It’s a problem that we would love to have,” said Kenny.