CASTINE — A delayed winter sports season is in the cards for athletes at five Maine universities — for now.
On Friday, the North Atlantic Conference announced tentative plans to offer winter sports later in the spring semester. The announcement keeps hopes of a 2021 season alive for athletes at Maine Maritime Academy, Husson University, Thomas College, the University of Maine at Farmington, the University of Maine at Presque Isle and seven other universities in New York and Vermont.
“I want to thank the NAC presidents, vice presidents and athletic administrators for their thoughtful leadership in such a difficult time,” said NAC Commissioner Marcella Zalot. “They are juggling so many issues on campus. The presidents’ decisions today respect the individuality and unique needs of each institution, which is a hallmark of our conference.”
As was the case with most college athletic conferences around the country, the NAC has been on hiatus from competition since March. The league had concluded its 2019-20 basketball season in late February before canceling baseball, softball, lacrosse, men’s tennis and track in the spring and soccer, field hockey, volleyball, cross-country, golf and women’s tennis in the fall.
Traditionally, the NAC has offered just men’s and women’s basketball during the winter. Yet the conference is set to expand that offering with the introduction of men’s and women’s swimming and diving should the conference receive the green light for a 2021 winter season. The first meet is tentatively scheduled for March 13-14.
“We’re looking at an invitational-style meet, most likely one in two different locations,” MMA Athletic Director Steve Peed said. “As it stands right now, we would go to Husson, the three New York schools would go to Cazenovia, and then we’d rank out the times.”
The NAC’s basketball season is scheduled to begin Jan. 29, though those dates remain “on hold,” according to the conference. Peed told The American that MMA and three other NAC schools will not be participating in the conference basketball slate.
In lieu of conference play, Peed said, MMA will look to offer basketball over a five-week stretch beginning in March. The school plans to provide sporting opportunities for its fall athletes over the same time period.
“We took a look at where we were and what we had left in our budget for the year for athletics and talked as a department what our goals were,” Peed said. “With the calendar in front of us, we decided that the best thing we could do would be to try to get games in for all of our sports.”
Offering fall sports on a limited basis throughout the early spring was an idea that had also been floated by NAC university presidents, according to the conference’s release. If such an opportunity presents itself come March and April, Peed said, Maine universities would most likely be restricted to competition against in-state opponents.
“For me, the most realistic path I could see to any sort of competition in realistic fashion is within the state of Maine, where we’re all singing from the same sheet of music in terms of what we’re looking at with regulations,” Peed said. “When we talk with schools in Vermont or New York, they have different regulations than Maine does, and that’s a big challenge.”
The NAC will wait until January to make a final decision on winter sports. In a statement, Presidents’ Council Chairman and UMPI President Ray Rice said that the conference is “cautiously optimistic that the worrisome trend we are seeing nationally right now will change course in a way that allows for safe athletic competition.”
“The coronavirus will ultimately determine the fate of winter sports in the NAC,” Rice said. “We are committed to providing student athletes with an opportunity to play their sport if it is safe for them and our campuses and wider communities to do so.”