BURNABY — Its campus may enjoy a lofty perch atop Burnaby Mountain, yet like the rest of the NCAA’s 1,200-plus member schools across the continent, the Simon Fraser Clan are trying their best to find the rays of sunlight obscured by the cloudy and uncertain skies of the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Tuesday, Simon Fraser athletic director Theresa Hanson confirmed that key dates had been determined at both the national and conference levels, effectively serving as the first of what will be many steps along a path to determining the fate of the 2020 fall season of NCAA Div. 2 athletics, and the Clan’s role within it as members of the Great Northwest Athletic Conference.
“The Division II Administrative committee affirmed that at this time there will be no changes to the start dates for the fall practice season and championship schedules,” Hanson said.
“What this means for us is, at this time, the fall season is as scheduled. If provincial health and safety guidelines are met and we are permitted to safely return to sport, we can start training camps in August for our fall sports.”
In addition, a conference meeting has been set for July 9 at which time the GNAC’s athletic directors will come together with its conference presidents group to discuss the many potential iterations for the fall season.
That meeting will likely touch on the blanket waivers (full details below), which were introduced Thursday by the NCAA and permit its Div. 2 schools and conferences to largely designate their own seasons of play during the 2020-21 academic year so that they may better adjust and pivot to the COVID-19 environment specific to their unique region.
Said Sandra Jordan, chair of the NCAA Div. 2 President’s Council “…We will continue to take action in ways that protect the health, safety and well-being of student-athletes, coaches, administrators and spectators, while providing conferences and NCAA member institutions the flexibility they need to navigate successfully in these unprecedented times.”
Taken at face value, the developments are innovative and meet the urgency of a timeline which must be in place in order to give student-athletes their best shot at competitive fall seasons of play should the appropriate health authorities deem conditions safe for a return to play later this summer.
But what does all of this mean for a 2020 fall sports season involving teams from Simon Fraser University, the only non-U.S. school among the NCAA’s vast 1,268 members?
Unlike any other collegiate sports program in North America, SFU has, for the majority of the past half-century-plus, relied on the ability of both itself and its opponents to cross between the Canada-U.S. border in a timely fashion, especially with the vast majority of its GNAC games played on Thursdays and Saturdays.
Yet with the status of the border’s opening later this summer and into the fall unclear for the Clan, and with a 14-day self-isolation likely still in place for SFU and the conference’s two Alaskan member schools (Alaska (Fairbanks) and Alaska-Anchorage) over the foreseeable future, Clan fall sports teams in football, men’s and women’s soccer, volleyball, cross-country and golf are facing the very real possibility of having to sit out the conference season if the remaining GNAC schools elect to proceed.
The alternatives are plenty, yet Hanson, who is leading SFU’s delicate and precarious navigation through the fluid dynamics of the pandemic, has had to be understandably cautious with her words.
And that’s because the list of ‘ifs’ in any given scenario can quickly become multi-layered and complex.
“Our three guiding principles are what is in the best interest of our student athletes’ health and safety, their academic progress and their eligibility,” she said.
“Should Simon Fraser not be able to participate in the fall due to the border, or other reasons,” she added of GNAC conference play, “we will continue to work with our coaches and explore options which may be different from sport to sport.”
By that, Hanson is referring to the unique make-up of each Clan fall sports team.
Some are extremely heavy in rising juniors and seniors, while others have a glut of younger players, both of the incoming pure- and rising redshirt-freshman variety.
With 2020-21’s incoming freshmen not even settled in their dorms, and a potential 2021-22 class on the way in another 12 months, a logjam of younger players with very little post-secondary playing experience could result.
With all of that in mind, the best course of action for player development might be to give added playing time to the younger players if a makeshift season can be fashioned, while the older players make a return when the Clan are able to rejoin the hunt with a stake in the conference and national championship once again available, given everything else works with their own academic journies.
WHAT IS THE BLANKET WAIVER?
So what does the rest of the big picture look like for the fall in the case that Simon Fraser has to forgo conference play while the majority of the GNAC is able to continue?
Under the provisions of the new blanket waiver, Simon Fraser would be able to effectively find a way to play a fall sports schedule, or potentially even move it to another season.
Each fall sport has a pre-determined number of days equal in length from the start of its first permissible day of practice to the first date of NCAA Div. 2 national championships.
For example, volleyball (women) is 108 days, football is 103 days, women’s soccer 95 days, men’s soccer 94 days, and cross-country 84 days.
If that schedule was to begin in the fall, SFU would find a healthy line-up of former rivals dating back to its days in the Canada West.
Although Canada West recently cancelled its fall season, it has been permitted, given a safe environment with which to play, the opportunity to schedule exhibition competition.
In both men’s and women’s soccer, it could mean the resumption of the Simon Fraser vs. UBC derbies which have been played on and off over the past few seasons, but were an annual affair in the years when the Clan played in the U.S.-based NAIA.
As well, the national title-contending Trinity Western Spartans and Abbotsford’s always-tough Fraser Valley Cascades make a worthy quartet in the Greater Vancouver area alone.
B.C. is a cross-country running hotbed, so Clan harriers would have no shortage of competition locally against the local schools. And while Canada West cancelled the majority of its fall sports, it has until July 15 to determine the conference fate of its cross-country teams.
Women’s volleyball (SFU does not field a men’s team) is a little trickier.
The Canada West’s local contingent of TWU, UBC and UFV have had their fall schedules pushed back until Jan. 1 at the earliest, with a decision to come on an actual start date by no later than Oct. 8.
Simon Fraser volleyball typically plays three weeks of preseason matches prior to a GNAC start in mid-to-late September, wrapping up conference play in late November.
TO PLAY, OR NOT TO PLAY?
The opportunity to play may well exist even without its GNAC rivals at schools like Western Washington, Central Washington, Seattle Pacifc, St. Martin’s and Western Oregon. Yet there is an additional layer of complexity involved for Clan teams.
Under the terms of the blanket waiver, student-athletes would be using a year of their four-year eligibility if they took part in games, something its U Sports’ peers, who already have a larger five-year eligibility window, did not have to surrender when their fall seasons were cancelled.
And that’s where football comes into the picture.
With UBC as its only in-province university rival, the automatic thought might be that the Clan could resume the annual crosstown rivalry Shrum Bowl, which could makes its return after a decade in moth balls.
No one doubts the marquee such a game would hold, especially since it could likely be the only game on the schedule for both teams this coming season.
Yet under the terms of the blanket waiver introduced last week, the game would cost Simon Fraser players a season of eligibility unless the Clan applied for and were granted a relief waiver to play the game.
Such a scenario is not out of the question, and the Clan’s new on-campus stadium could well be ready in time for a November kick-off as it is set to play the host role under U.S. rules whenever the series resumes.
Yet the biggest question might be whether the rivalry should return in an upcoming season where it is not even known if fans will be allowed to attend the game? If things progress along this path, it is sure to become a topic of hot debate.
Of course, it’s like we said off the top: The ‘ifs’ are everywhere.
Back on May 12, the Div. 2 California Collegiate Athletic Association cancelled its entire fall sports season. The CCAA may use the blanket waiver and move those sports to the spring season.
And perhaps such a move is also in the cards for the GNAC?
No one knows anything for sure.
The map to game day 2020 this fall is indeed complex, its terrain foreign to the point where even the school’s own namesake, the explorer Simon Fraser himself, would trouble have reading it.
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