Small College Sports

For Iowa small college ADs, a never-ending list of questions with ever-changing answers

This is pretty much full frame with a 600mm lens. I only took one frame of the punt. It also shows that great action can
This is pretty much full frame with a 600mm lens. I only took one frame of the punt. It also shows that great action can be photographed at smaller games and not just the power conferences or the NFL. Coe's A.J. Christensen (left) blocks the punt of Luther's Canon Reece during the third quarter of their college football game at Clark Field at Coe College in northeast Cedar Rapids, Iowa on Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — They are being asked for so much guidance right now from so many people. The questions are endless and seem to change every single day.

Not being able to provide consistent clarity has been the toughest thing for Iowa college athletics directors Paul Gavin, Renae Hartl, Steve Cook and Seth Wing. They wish they could give some, but the coronavirus pandemic makes that impossible.

One day brings this, the next something completely different.

“The one word that comes to mind is frustrating, in a lot of different ways,” said Mount Mercy University’s Gavin. “Along with our role as AD, all of us here have been coaches, have spent our entire life working with student-athletes and now working with coaches, seeing them every day. Now everything is being done like this: virtually. You don’t get that personal tie that you are used to. I really miss that. I miss the white of the eye, seeing people up close and personal. Reading body language and so forth.

“It’s ever evolving, it’s fluid, it’s constantly changing. It’s something we have no control over ... It’s a crying shame for our student-athletes, what they are going through. Our role is to stay as positive as possible, work with our coaches, work with our student-athletes to promote hopefully a positive situation for them this fall and going forward.”

The Gazette held a Zoom meeting Wednesday evening with Gavin, Luther College’s Hartl, Coe College’s Cook and Cornell College’s Wing. The ADs discussed their respective conference’s current plans, their hopes for the future and their dismay at already losing last year’s spring sports seasons.

That hit Hartl, Cook and Wing especially hard, since Hartl is head softball coach and Cook and Wing head baseball coaches at their respective institutions.

“You felt like you were run over by a truck in the spring,” Hartl said. “Right now, this is like a slow death after getting hit by the truck. It’s just worse. I think in the spring, too, it was harder in a way that we didn’t know how serious it was. You had to try and explain it to kids, and you didn’t know how to explain it. You didn’t know why it was canceled, and now we know why. In the spring, it was like four days. It was fast, it was over, you sent them home. Where this has been 4 1/2 months of planning and then changing your plans.”

This is what we know right now about fall athletics at the small-college level:

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The NCAA Division III Midwest Conference, of which Cornell is a member, announced last week it is suspending all league sports through the year. That is football, volleyball, men’s and women’s tennis, men’s and women’s soccer and men’s and women’s cross country in the fall. The beginning of winter sports men’s and women’s basketball, men’s and women’s swimming and men’s and women’s indoor track and field will be pushed back to 2021.

Coaches can have contact with their athletes and help them train, and it is at the discretion of each MWC school to schedule non-conference competition.

“We made an announcement just two weeks ago that we were moving forward,” Wing said. “But every day is different, brings on a new set of challenges, and our conference early on decided to follow the document the NCAA put forth. In reality, in the end, the likelihood of us being able to follow that, the (rigorous) testing protocols and those sorts of things, things came crumbling down quite quickly this week.

“As a group of athletics directors, we finally just kind of threw our hands in the air and said we couldn’t follow this document anymore, let the presidents know, and they made the decision to at least take the conference umbrella off each individual school. Now we’re each on our own. We will do our best to provide a great experience for our student-athletes, and if that’s a minimal amount of nonconference opportunities for certain sports, we’re certainly going to try. But right now, nothing is on the schedule, as far as competitions.”

Luther and Coe are members of the D-III American Rivers Conference, which came out with a statement last week that it would conduct fall sports, though on a league-only basis. Adjustments will be made to schedules for each sport, such as playing a football game every other week and a volleyball match only once a week.

Those schedules are still being finalized.

“We’re excited,” Cook said. “Sure, we’re cautiously excited. Things are changing rapidly, but I don’t see a lot changing in the communications we have had within our conference. Look, the nation is changing, the state of Iowa is changing, there are a lot of dynamics at play here. But, ultimately, right now our conference has come to a solid foundation and agreement. And it’s based on limiting our schedules in a way we felt we could give it a chance, be safe, and with the best interests of our student-athletes in mind. No doubt, that is first and foremost of where we are at.”

Mount Mercy is an NAIA school and a member of the Heart of America Conference. The NAIA has announced it is postponing fall sports national championships until the spring, while the Heart of America remains a fall sports full go.

At Mount Mercy, fall sports are men’s and women’s soccer, women’s volleyball, men’s and women’s golf and men’s and women’s bowling.

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“It’s a good thing from my perspective,” Gavin said. “Then if things get bad, we can shut it down, reorganize and reschedule in the spring.”

Mount Mercy and Cedar Rapids are hosting the NAIA national cross country championships, which means Gavin has had to throw out of all of his plans for that and start over again, since those will be conducted in the spring now instead of the fall.

“From a workload standpoint, we’re going to have to plan for a lot more spring contests,” he said. “That puts an incredible workload on our staff. Not only do we have games for our teams to worry about, we’ve got the cross country national championships, plus we host the Heart of America conference softball championships at our field, which is a tremendous field, a tremendous venue. That’s a lot of work. I’m going to age.”

Upper Iowa, meanwhile, is a D-II school whose conference (Northern Sun) announced last week it will stay with a fall sports schedule, though that schedule is being moved back. The first practices for football and men’s and women’s cross country has been pushed back to Sept. 2, with the first competitions in those sports not allowed until Sept. 26.

Volleyball and soccer practices can begin Sept. 8, with first competitions Oct. 2.

“This was a challenging decision for our membership to make,” said NSIC Commissioner Erin Lind. “For the last several months, our membership has been working tirelessly to prepare for the fall sports season, including developing the resumption of athletic principles, revamping schedules and creating competition disruption plans. At this time, we remain optimistic that we can safely conduct a fall sports season and moving the start date of competition will give us the best opportunity to give our student-athletes the experience they deserve.”

That’s really what everyone wants, to give their student-athletes the experience they deserve. Which is why people like Gavin, Hartl, Cook and Wing are seemingly constantly in Zoom meetings with others, trying to find a solution that keeps their kids safe and keeps them playing.

And, for their schools’ sake, keeps them enrolled. At smaller schools, athletics help drive enrollment.

“We are all residential, on-campus, co-curricular-driven institutions,” Wing said. “You take away the extracurricular activities, you take away the on-campus living, you’ve got some serious problems. We’re working through those daily. But I can say we haven’t had the herd, the large amount of withdrawn students, yet. We’re holding steady.”

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“Honestly, our athletic recruitment is up,” said Gavin, whose school does give some athletics scholarships. “We have actually exceeded our recruitment goal for the fall of 2020 by almost 8.9 percent the last time I checked. As a matter of fact, if everyone shows up as planned, we will have the largest class of athletes in the history of Mount Mercy. We’re borderline 200 new athletes coming in. And here we don’t have football, wrestling, as many sports as some of the other schools ... I kind of look at it as our coaches didn’t have a whole lot to do other than recruit. They could get on the phone and recruit the heck out of it. They really took the bull by the horns and got after it.”

They all are getting after it.

“My fellow AD colleagues have been my support system, to be honest, with this,” Hartl said. “Because there are not many people who are doing what we’re trying to do every day and feeling like we’re constantly trying to come up with a plan and changing the plan the next day. I would say one of the hardest things is not necessarily just athletics, but the people we are surrounded by, not just the coaches and the other administrators ... It is very difficult to have very little control about what is going to happen the next day.

“To satisfy all of the questions from not only our coaches but our student-athletes has been very difficult. They just want to know, and it’s so hard to say something and have to take it back. To tell a 17, 18, 19-year-old to be flexible as we navigate through this has been very hard.”

Comments: (319) 398-8259; jeff.johnson@thegazette.com

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