After the NCAA Division II Presidents Council announced in May that the maximum number of games in 2020-21 would be reduced for safety and financial reasons relating to COVID-19, leagues such as the NSIC followed suit.
Minnesota Duluth announced Tuesday that the Bulldogs will only play NSIC contests in volleyball, football and soccer this fall.
“Conference games only, that’s what we’re looking at,” UMD athletic director Josh Berlo said. “Each conference had to make a decision about nonconference games. In the interest of health and safety and finances, the NSIC decided to do a full slate of conference games, and no nonconference games. If you think about nonconference games, in general, you’re traveling further distances, and they involve more hotel stays, which right now, in the COVID era, is not necessarily a good thing.”
The move is nothing new for football, which has played an exclusively NSIC regular-season schedule for years. However, with NCAA Division II going to 10 games this fall, UMD will no longer open the season at Upper Iowa. Instead, the Bulldogs will open at home the following week against Minnesota State-Mankato, last year’s national runner-up, for a 6:05 p.m. contest on Saturday, Sept. 12, as part of Military Appreciation Day.
“We’re always excited to play quality playoff opponents from the NSIC,” Berlo said. “We’ve had a nice rivalry with Mankato over the last decade, so we’re looking forward to a great game there. It’s a great way to kick it off, and hopefully that game sets a great tone for the year.”
How many fans will be allowed in the stands for that one, now, that’s another question.
Berlo said the Bulldogs are waiting for updated guidance from the Minnesota Department of Health and the University of Minnesota system in regards to attendance and other safety and logistical issues with hosting games. Currently, outdoor entertainment in Minnesota is restricted to 250 people per area, but a large facility like Malosky Stadium could presumably be divided into multiple areas with separate concessions and bathrooms.
“Plans are being developed and being reviewed,” Berlo said. “We hope over the next two months that we’ll learn more, but regardless of how those play out, we’re going to be prepared to put the health and safety of our players, staff, coaches, campus, community and fans first. We’ll have as many fans as we can in the safest possible environment. We want to get back to athletic activities as soon as we can while making sure we don’t lose sight of the importance of public health and safety.”
According to reports, the NFL is considering having fans sign coronavirus liability waivers to attend games, while colleges are having athletes sign waivers to practice.
Berlo said plans and policies are still in development for how this will work in Minnesota. He said UMD student-athletes have been asked to sign a pledge to follow best practices concerning coronavirus preventive measures but not a waiver.
UMD soccer, meanwhile, will play 14 games and UMD volleyball will play 20 matches.
“It’s kind of been a rolling process, so I don’t know exactly when the NSIC came up with this,” Berlo said. “Different schools have released it at different times, and this week felt like the time for us, where we had something concrete to let fans and folks know our fall schedules.”
Football’s fall camp could start as early Aug. 10, and soccer, volleyball and cross country could start somewhere around Aug. 17.
Starting Monday, UMD athletes were allowed back on campus and at Amsoil Arena for voluntary workouts, with screenings and other safety protocols in place.
For Berlo, just seeing student-athletes back on campus was a great sign that some sense of normalcy could soon be returning.
“Almost 48 hours into it, the first two days have gone well,” Berlo said Tuesday. “I was on campus yesterday morning, just checking everything out, supporting and greeting everyone. It was a pretty smooth process. I will tell you it was awesome, for the first time in 85 days — since March 12 — to see an official Bulldog athletic activity. Even though it was just an hour and a half of time in the weight room, or out on the turf, for about 100 of our kids across 16 sports. It was great to see them, and they were excited to be back.
“I had a group from the cross country team run by, and those women were all smiles. They were taking it seriously. We’re going to take our time here to do it the right way, but hopefully we can keep moving forward judiciously.”