The coronavirus pandemic has presented plenty of challenges for college athletic departments around the country.
Now it’s adding a new challenge: multiple sports seasons running simultaneously.
“It’s very difficult for our schools, very challenging from a facilities standpoint, from a staffing standpoint to pull all this off,” said Big Sky Conference commissioner Tom Wistrcill. “We’re excited to get going. I know our student-athletes, especially the ones who had planned on competing in the fall and now had to wait until the spring, are just really excited to get going. To practice for something meaningful is a big deal to them, so that’s been positive.”
The Big Sky Conference postponed all of its fall sports to the spring, including football, volleyball and soccer. Montana and Montana State have opted out of the Big Sky’s spring football season, but both volleyball programs started play last week. The Montana women’s soccer team isn’t scheduled for its first match until March 12, but some of the Big Sky’s other teams have already played some exhibition matches.
Combine the postponed sports with the sports competing in their regular time frames, like men’s and women’s basketball and men’s and women’s tennis, plus men’s and women’s skiing at Montana State, and it’s an unprecedented level of athletic activity on college campuses, even without fans in the stands.
“The real burden certainly falls to facilities,” said Montana director of athletics Kent Haslam. “We’re crossing over our three court spots all into one main season — that’s volleyball, men’s and women’s basketball — so there’s a real toll on our facilities, but the real, real toll falls onto our athletic training staff and our sports medicine staff, and they really have been the unsung heroes through this whole pandemic.”
“We spread these sports out for a reason and that’s because we don’t have just unlimited people to be able to staff all these sports,” Haslam added. “So there will be a toll that will be placed certainly on our facilities and operations folks and our sports medicine folks.”
“We’ve been in such a great spot from a university perspective and really from an athletic department perspective from the support we get form the university, but also from our support areas, from Bozeman Health, our athletic trainers, our strength and conditioning staff, our academic staff,” Montana State director of athletics Leon Costello said. “We have been working really hard to make sure that this facility was open and accessible to our student-athletes to be able to come in and do the things that they need to do, and that’s still the case.”
The men’s and women’s basketball teams were the first programs at Montana and Montana State to get back into regular competition. All four teams have had games canceled due to COVID-19, including this week’s scheduled men’s games between the Bobcats and Grizzlies. The women still played Thursday in Bozeman, with Montana State cruising to a 70-46 win, and the teams will meet again at noon Saturday in Missoula. The completion of Saturday’s game will mark the halfway point of the conference schedule.
"I'm just glad that we turned the scoreboards back on and that we've got people competing," Haslam said. "I think so far it's gone well. We've been able to manage the testing protocols, we've been able to manage the requirements to hold games in our facilities. While we're doing that without fans, which is not the greatest, we completely understand why that's the case. And so right now, it's gone well and we still got a ways to go. It's a day by day, but right now I'm just glad that we've been able to compete."
All four of the teams at Montana and Montana State have had to scramble for games at different times this season, but they've all played at least 12 total games and six conference games. Wistrcill said the Big Sky has gotten in about 70-75% of its scheduled games, and the Big Sky Conference tournaments are still scheduled for March 8-13 at Boise.
“We’re going to play it as scheduled with all 22 teams coming up and hopefully a women’s championship on that Friday and a men’s championship on Saturday,” Wistrcill said. “We’ll be testing the teams, essentially the Tier 1 student-athletes, coaches, managers, trainers — 22-25 people getting tested every day. We don’t know about fans yet. We’re in the process of applying for a waiver through the county there in Boise, Idaho, to see if we can get a couple of tickets per student-athlete and per person in that group. We don’t know if that’s going to get approved or not, but we’re hopeful we’ll at least be able to have at least parents there to watch their kids play. That’s meaningful to all of us as well as the student-athletes. We’re processing as quickly as possible and hopeful that we can pull it off.”
Meanwhile, the Montana and Montana State volleyball teams both started their seasons on the road last week. The Griz have their home-opening matches this weekend, while the Cats will have their home opener on Feb. 6. UM also started its men’s and women’s tennis seasons earlier this month, and MSU will get going on the tennis courts in the next couple of weeks. MSU’s ski teams have also started their seasons.
“We feel good about where we are, but obviously we’ve entered this knowing that we are going to have to make adjustments, could be on a daily basis,” Costello said. “Our staff has been really flexible, our coaches have been flexible, and we’re going to need to keep that mindset because we know things are going to happen in the future that we can’t control.”
One sport that is headed back to the sidelines is indoor track and field. The same day Montana and Montana State announced they were opting out of the Big Sky’s spring football season, the Big Sky announced it had canceled the indoor track and field conference championships. With that, Montana announced it wouldn’t be holding an indoor track and field season in any form and would “turn its focus toward a modified cross country season and the hopes for a full outdoor track and field season, beginning in late March.”
Montana State is moving forward with two duals with Idaho State. The Bobcats competed against the Bengals in Bozeman on Jan. 22 and will host them for another dual on Feb. 5.
“We’ll start the practices for volleyball and soccer here, essentially getting going (last) week with competitions, and then we hope there’s not many stops and starts, but certainly expecting some as we go along,” Wistrcill said. “The indoor sports, like a volleyball, are going to have a little more stringent (protocols). Outdoor sports, the opportunity to spread the virus is not near as great in those outdoor sports. We’re hopeful but guarded as we jump into this. … We’ll see how it goes.”