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Uncertainly looms for area D-III programs as fall progresses

10/23/2020, 8:30am EDT
By Josh Verlin

Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)

When Rosemont College men’s basketball head coach Barney Hughes walks in or out of his Alumnae Hall office, he has to take a brief stroll down his gym’s baseline. He can’t help but notice whenever his players are utilizing the space, getting shots up, biding time on a court on which they still hold out hope of playing meaningful minutes this season.

It’s not how any of them pictured October shootarounds going: no more than two players to a basket, everybody wearing masks. Division III programs around the country watched October 15, usually the first day of practice for small-college hoops, come and go without any fanfare. 

Instead of counting down the days until the first tip-offs in mid-November, the Division III hoops world waits in limbo. In the balance hang the seasons of hundreds of teams, thousands of coaches, tens of thousands of players. 

It’s an understandable frustration and without a clear solution.

“I have hope, but I’ve learned since March and going through this process that the minute you make plans, it’s less about God laughing at you than just kind of saying ‘what are you doing? Why do you think this would work?’” Hughes said. “I know our conference wants to play, I know schools in our conference want to play, I know our presidents and our ADs, certainly our student-athletes want to play. 

“I just don’t think we know enough in late October to know what we’re going to do.”

There are nearly three dozen Division III schools in the southeastern quarter of Pennsylvania, spread across eight different leagues.

So far, only one has made a definitive statement about the upcoming season: Swarthmore College, whose athletics teams were left no choice after the school’s leadership announced last week that its student body would not be returning to full on-campus status this spring. Even if they hadn’t, most of the men’s basketball team’s student-athletes had already taken a leave of absence this year to preserve their eligibility, a sign of where their expectations were about whether or not there would be sports this winter.

Elsewhere in the Northeast, other leagues have made their decisions. The New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) canceled its conference competitions, though individual schools within that conference are still able to hold individual seasons if they want. The State University of New York Athletic Conference (SUNYAC), whose members are all SUNY schools, went a step further and called off all winter sports altogether.

While none of the local schools were directly affected by the NESCAC or SUNYAC decisions, they know that their own conferences are going to have to come to their own conclusions at some point. The Middle Atlantic Conference (MAC), whose two sub-conferences include nearly 10 area programs between the two of them, is making its decision Nov. 3. Other leagues are waiting a little longer to see which of their member institutions will have student bodies on campus in the spring, and if there will be enough programs to run some version of a league schedule.

Landry Kosmalski (above, fourth from left) and Swarthmore are the only area D-III program whose 2020-21 season has been called off so far. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

“Obviously it’s concerning, but I think we have a good group of guys who understand what’s going on in the world, and we all know it’s out of our hands,” Arcadia coach Adam Van Zelst said. “If we don’t have a season, it’s obviously upsetting, but at the end of the day there’s this global pandemic going on, so some things are going to take priority to a basketball season. It is what it is at this point.”

Van Zelst has no access to his players, 10 of which are on campus with access to the gym. Hughes is in a similar situation, except his entire team is on campus, along with the rest of Rosemont’s student body. 

Other coaches have slightly more access right now. Haverford College’s Pat Doherty has 12 of his players on campus, and has been able to hold modified practice three times a week, socially distant drills with all his players wearing masks.

“I can’t tell you the type of preparation we’re doing is preparing for a season, because it isn’t, Doherty said. “It’s a lot of skill work, a lot of shooting. We’re not doing a ton of conditioning, I don’t have them running suicides or sprints, because that wouldn’t make sense right now. Unless and until I know we’ve got a season coming, we’re going to take a long view of the work that we’re doing.”

Up at Gwynedd Mercy University, John Baron enters his 19th year wearing a mask and face shield for his teams’ practices. He’s divided his program into two fully-separate groups of nine players, splitting each of his two or three weekly practices in half, the two groups never mingling.

While Baron understands the need for safety and caution when it comes to coronavirus, he’s pulling for a season for several reasons. Though Gwynedd Mercy’s finances aren’t quite the same as Power 5 division schools, he brought up the point that athletics teams with dozens if not hundreds of players can have a major effect on small colleges with enrollments of a couple thousand.

“As much as Auburn football needs television revenue to operate and sponsorships, we can’t afford to have 50 athletes from up and down different sports decide to take the semester off because we’re online and there’s no season,” Baron said. “In the end, 50 kids or even 20 students is a gigantic hit for a smaller school.

“I don’t want to give the impression that we’re going to push to play because of that,” he added, “but I don’t think (people)’s all relative, just on a different scale for us.”

If there is any type of Division III basketball this year, it doesn’t seem like there’s any chance it happens before the calendar hits 2021. The schools whose students are on campus are sending them home for Thanksgiving, and in most cases wouldn’t bring them back until late December at the earliest. Then they have to test multiple times for an incubation period until everybody is cleared, before warm-up practices can even begin.

And with the deadlines for postseason play looming in March, that leaves a limited window for the schools to fit in even a limited conference slate.

Haverford College coach Pat Doherty (above) is taking the long-term approach with his teams' practices. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

“Let’s say we come back Dec. 26, there’s going to be some re-acclimation period, so what does that look like?” Hughes said. “Is it seven days, 10-day, 14-day? These are big things. And then how long do you have a preseason? If you have a 14-day acclimation and then a preseason, now it’s Jan. 20. It’s not a lot of time to put in a lot of games with less prep time than you’ve ever had.

“That’s why I think it’s so difficult to try to glass ball this, to prognosticate what might happen, there’s so much thrown asunder that you’re still picking up all these pieces and trying to fit them back in order, and you’re in the middle of the friggin’ earthquake.”

Also unclear up until recently for all the Division III programs was the eligibility of their players for 2021-22. The NCAA has already decided that D-I and D-II athletes will gain an extra year of eligibility no matter what, causing what are sure to be scholarship traffic jams across the country; the NJCAA did the same. The D-III Presidents’ Council will vote on the measure next week, and it is expected to pass.

However, considering D-III schools don’t offer athletic scholarships, it’s not nearly as easy a situation to fix. Many of the area’s D-III schools, including Haverford and Rosemont, are colleges without any graduate programs, and their students might be too close to graduation to stay another year. 

Others, like Arcadia and Gwynedd Mercy, have graduate schools and/or five-year programs that can allow their students to stay on campus an extra year and work towards their second degree. Whether or not the student-athletes will want to do that, and put off their career for one more year of athletics while potentially having to take out more loans or pay for another degree, will be a tremendously difficult decision.

“Seniors everywhere are just caught in a really awful situation, where you work your tail off for three years, for a chance to represent your school as a senior and obviously everybody’s looking forward to a great senior year at this point,” Doherty said, “and there’s a very real possibility that a lot of Division III senior student-athletes are not going to get that chance.

“It just sucks, I mean it’s horrible for those kids.”

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