For Golden Eagles, conference-only schedules present their own challenges

Jacob Shames
Minnesota Crookston athletic teams will only play NSIC games this season.

While the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference hasn’t yet made any decision related to fall sports, it’s ahead of most conferences in one area — and has been for some time.

On Tuesday, May 19, the NCAA Division II Presidents’ Council announced that all seasons would be shortened, to better manage the impact of COVID-19 and help schools plan their budgets. Notably, D-II teams are allowed to play a maximum of 10 football games, 14 soccer games, 20 volleyball games and 22 men’s and women’s basketball games.

In the wake of that decision, the NSIC chose to simply eliminate all non-conference games, seeing as in a typical year, teams play roughly the number of conference games as they’re allowed total in 2020-21.

While many leagues at lower levels have already cancelled fall sports, Minnesota Crookston and the 15 other member institutions of the NSIC are still prepared to play this fall. And UMC coaches have been grappling with those implications — as they relate to safety, of course, but also how they might play out on the field or the court.

The Golden Eagles’ men’s basketball team has 17 players on the roster for 2020-21. Twelve of them are new. With no non-conference games in November, this presents a challenge for breaking them in.

D-II teams are still permitted three exhibition games. Scheduling them, though, could be its own problem. The Golden Eagles were supposed to travel to Canada to take on the University of Winnipeg on Oct. 23, but now there are no exhibitions listed on their schedule.

“The good news is that every team’s in the same situation,” said head coach Dan Weisse. “The thing with our team … we’re gonna have to have our team chemistry down without playing more than a scrimmage or an exhibition. If you’re a team that has a lot of guys coming back this year, I think this is a good year to do it.”

Volleyball head coach Sarah Rauen doesn’t have quite as green a team as Weisse, but she’s still tasked with getting a team that went 4-24 last year up to speed, without the benefit of any games before getting into what she calls the toughest conference in America. Like Weisse, though, she recognizes that everyone else is in the same boat.

“Nobody gets to see anybody,” she said. “We might not know what every other team has, and they don’t know what we have either. I think a little bit of the element of surprise will help us out.”

Women’s basketball coach Mike Roysland might have the school’s most experienced team. The Golden Eagles bring back their top eight scorers from 2019-20 and graduated just three seniors. But he generally sees non-conference play as a chance to tinker and take stock of his team before games that “matter.” He doesn’t have that luxury this year.

Roysland can’t ensure every freshman or reserve gets their feet wet. He can’t try too many new lineups for extended stretches. He has to be sure of whatever he has from the first game. In some ways, this has meant an adjusted perspective.

“Sometimes less is more,” he said. “You’re gonna have to pinpoint the things you really wanna do well. … And you gotta hope that you got upperclassmen that can really get off to a good start. … I’d rather do a few things really well versus trying to do so many things that you’re not efficient at.”

Compounding the challenges of conference-only play: while teams will play less games, the actual length of the season — from the first practice to the last — remains the same. Players will get back in mid-August, and coaches will have as much time with his team as they regularly do (albeit possibly under Minnesota Department of Health restrictions that could mean less-than-full-team practices).

Weisse recognizes that this could lead to fatigue concerns, with practice after practice and fewer games to break the routine. He’s toyed with ideas to cut back on practices if necessary, such as taking players swimming or bowling, or hosting movie nights to build chemistry.

While the reasoning behind solely conference games — less moving parts, by limiting competition to one governing body to set protocols and ensure safety — is sound, it doesn’t eliminate every variable. The NSIC is massive, spanning five states, and no state is likely to be totally the same in their fight against COVID-19.

As such, when Rauen and her team go on the road, they’re lucky to have a relatively small team and be used to taking buses instead of planes. They’re also routine about ordering food to-go instead of sitting down at restaurants, something that Rauen said will obviously continue.

Ultimately, every coach in the conference has to deal with these same challenges and concerns. And as it stands, there’s no guarantee that any games will take place this fall.

The message from UMC coaches, whether it’s related to conference play or anything else? Be prepared.

“I think you need to be very adaptable,” Roysland said. “And I think by becoming disgusted or because of the circumstances, we don’t wanna get ourselves to where we’re not saying positive.”

And for the time being, Roysland can be at least somewhat positive — his team has 22 games on its schedule this season.

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