The Shippensburg University Raiders hope to have a busy spring semester — one that will allow them return to some sort of normalcy and perhaps, maybe begin to put the COVID-19 pandemic finally behind them.
Just how busy, and what the spring semester may look like, became a little more clear last week with an important ruling from the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference.
The PSAC had originally hoped to have full championship seasons for all fall and winter sports in the spring, but due to another surge in COVID-19 cases, the conference announced last week that only low-risk sports will be contested — swimming and cross country — in addition to all the regularly scheduled spring sports such as baseball, softball and outdoor track and field.
Swimming and cross-country were the only two fall or winter sports where at least six of the conference’s member schools opted-in to compete, with Shippensburg being among them.
“I am very happy for the spring sports, and I am very happy for cross country and swimming — provided we can get to the finish line. But I’m also very disappointed for the programs who won’t be able to have their true seasons,” said Shippensburg University Athletic Director Jeff Michaels during an interview Friday. “I think from the feedback we’ve received from our coaches and the student-athlete advisory committee during the fall it can be very challenging for the student-athletes because this is such an abnormal situation. They have identified from youth as being a student-athlete, and most of the athlete part had to be removed because of the coronavirus.”
It is still unclear at this time exactly how many schools will be competing. One of the schools that won’t be a part of the spring competition in any sport is the West Chester University Rams, who have already decided to opt out of all competition for the 2020–21 school year.
The Rams are a PSAC swimming powerhouse, having won the PSAC Men’s Swimming Championship in each of the last 22 seasons and the PSAC Women’s Swimming title the last 14.
Their absence should make for a wide open field in the 2020-21 PSAC Swimming Championships, which are expected to take place in April. The April date was chosen to allow PSAC swimmers the ability to also qualify for the NCAA Swimming Championships.
The PSAC Cross Country Championships are tentatively set to take place in March.
For football, basketball, field hockey and the rest of the fall and winter sports teams, last week’s ruling does not exclude them from taking part in scrimmages or even games this spring.
“At this point we don’t know what can happen with outside competition, because we don’t know where the virus is going to be,” Michaels said. “The biggest problem that we saw on the winter sports side was the fact that we have a hard stop date for basketball, wrestling and indoor track because of when the NCAA Championships are. There was no feeling within the conference to start our basketball or wrestling season late, go to the NCAA Tournament then go beyond that for the conference tournament. That couldn’t work because you need a conference tournament to have an automatic bid [for NCAAs].
“It really came down to if we have a hard stop in February for the conference tournament, that would mean a hard start time around late December. That just didn’t work with the current surges and the anticipated spikes [over the winter].”
Michaels’ hope is that those sports can have as normal a spring season as possible and at the minimum be able to return to a regular practice schedule.
“We’re certainly going to do everything in our power to allow them to have more than they had in the fall. We’d like for them to be able to do more of their normal activities — things that the virus has caused them to not be able to do,” Michaels stated. “This is all a work in progress and we are extremely fortunate to have a president — Dr. Laurie Carter — and an executive team that has tried to find a way for our student-athletes to have something once we get back for the spring. President Carter has been a leader in trying to have our student-athletes have legitimate, real opportunities. That has led to the fact that we are going to have extensive testing on our campus. That is the key step toward getting us to being able to have more of the fulfilling practices and competitions.”
For the many fall and winter sports that will not be able to have a 2020-21 season, the ruling is just the latest blow. Teams have been unable to practice during the fall semester and have been out of competition for over eight months, dating back to when COVID-19 halted postseason basketball tournaments in last March.
Michaels certainly sympathizes with what his student-athletes are going through.
“There are some that expected it, there are some that are extremely disappointed, and some that are still processing it. Every reaction is understandable,” he said. “Our campus made the commitment to have the in-person experience of on-campus learning, and our university did an excellent job. But with the way things are surging — it has even crept into our area — that is where we ended up. The struggle with this is how student-athletes identify with being an athlete. It is something that most of them have done their entire lives. It’s disappointing for everybody.”
The NCAA is going to provide an option for the spring last year and the fall and winter seasons now where the student can get their year of eligibility back, but that’s not going to be without a cost.
“If you are going to go back as an athlete you are going to worry about the cost of attending school, what degree you have to take and what classes you need. We are trying to provide guidance on that. Our Compliance Coordinator, our Associate Director of Athletics Ashley Grimm and a member of our financial aid group have been working with providing information to students,” Michaels stated. “Some are going to grasp because they want to consider what’s next and some are going to say ‘I’m not going to do this, I’m just going to move on and move forward with my grad school, employment, or what comes next.’”
He continued, “There are still a lot of unknowns. We know what we are trying to do and what we think we can do. But it’s just not what we can do at Ship, it’s what the community and society can do as well. These decisions are tough. This has not been easy. I really appreciate the work of the folks in our department, or colleagues at other institutions, the conference office and the presidents of the PSAC for trying to find ways to do this. Unfortunately to this point we haven’t been able to move forward directly with these things, but that is out of an abundance of caution and focusing on the health and well-being of our student-athletes.”