BILLINGS — The COVID-19 pandemic dealt MSU Billings another blow this week, as athletic director Krista Montague voted with a majority of Great Northwest Athletic Conference members to cancel the men's and women's conference basketball seasons.
It will mark the third straight athletic season MSU Billings has lost, starting with spring sports (baseball, softball, track and field) when the pandemic hit Montana in mid-March through this fall and now winter.
We spoke to Montague after Friday's announcement to see what went into the decision and what the future holds for MSUB in 2021.
MTN Sports: How did you arrive at this conclusion? Is this something you've been in talks with for a while?
Krista Montague: "Well, I would say ever since the pandemic hit and we actually canceled spring sports back in spring of 2020, I mean, we've been working really hard to figure out return to play and what that's going to look like for all of our sports. And so I wouldn't say that this was a decision that was just made. It's been what we've been working on it for a long time and weekly, daily, watching the pandemic. And unfortunately it's just not getting better. We're just very concerned about the health and safety of our student-athletes and our coaches, our staff, and our university that we just didn't feel it was in our best interest to continue planning to play our conference schedule, at least that requires quite a bit of travel."
MTN Sports: When you say no conference basketball, we see that non-conference games may be scheduled, but for all intents and purposes, does this basically -- in your guys' eyes -- cancel this season for athletes?
Montague: "Well, we really are optimistic that we'll be able to play some sort of competition in the spring. We're not sure what that might look like yet. Now that there's news, this decision has been final. Our coaches will get to work on what that might look like. Obviously we're the only Division II school in the state, so we realize it won't be NCAA Division II competition, but there are other local teams that we're optimistic might have an open night or open weekend that might be able to play."
MTN Sports: Did the fact that five other GNAC schools made the same decision factor into this one for you guys?
Montague: "Ideally, you always want to be on the same page as a conference. And I think ideally ... it would have been nice if maybe we were all on the same page, but we're not at this point and we have to respect that about each other. The (athletic directors) talk weekly and our presidents, our CEO group of presidents, chancellors have been talking probably every other month. We kind of had an idea where people might land on this decision, but we really didn't know until (Friday) actually, officially who was going to be out and who's going to be in. So not really, the decision really was based on what's best for our institution and our student-athletes."
MTN Sports: When it comes to eligibility, do you know those answers yet for winter sports athletes?
Montague: "Yeah. They have been granted an extra season of eligibility, so that was good news. And that came out a few weeks ago. So we now have a full cycle of student-athletes who have lost a championship season, our spring sports from spring '20 now, our fall sports and now winter sports. So we basically have a full year of student-athletes who will get to take advantage of an additional year if they choose to do so."
MTN Sports: Do you guys have any early numbers on the percentages of athletes that are choosing to remain?
Montague: "Not yet since the news came out. ... We'll just have to kind of wait and see. I can tell you from the spring we did have probably 15 or so spring athletes that chose to return otherwise would have not had the eligibility. That's what we'll have to work on in the coming days now, is drilling down on that and seeing what the future holds for those student-athletes to come back or not. We're going to support them in whatever decision they feel is best for them."
MTN Sports: Will your guys' decision to play non-conference games in the spring hinge on pandemic numbers and if things are getting better?
Montague: "Yeah, absolutely. We will continue to monitor that. We have an incident command group here on campus who has been very helpful in making decisions, working with public health, who's helped us navigate all of this. So absolutely that will be part of going forward, is navigating where it's at, how the numbers are. I think not having to necessarily worry about a long trip or multiple nights in a hotel could help potentially get a game or two in, or I don't know how many yet, but absolutely we'll continue to monitor that and that will drive decisions for sure."
MTN Sports: Are you basing anything that you're making on the availability of those teams wanting to play, or will you guys make the decision on your behalf first and then if it fits your criteria, that is how you'll go forward?
Montague: "Yeah, I would say the latter. There's very specific guidelines around testing, for example, from the NCAA. So now we'll have to navigate exactly what that means for us and what our requirements will be for our athletes to be able to compete. And then we'll definitely have that conversation about whoever the opposing team might be and what their testing protocol, what they're following and if that's going to be sufficient for us or not. So we'll have to work through those issues."
MTN Sports: Your spring sports are still on schedule, but I'm guessing there's still just more conversations that will have to happen as they get closer?
Montague: "Yeah. We're continuing to plan for our spring sports there. They already lost the season, and so we feel it's really important to do everything we can to get them back out on the playing fields and in competing. We don't know yet. I mean, that could change obviously, but for right now, we're going to do our best to try to move forward with those sports. And because that'll be two seasons, if we lose spring, that's going to be two years that those student-athletes have not competed. It gets really challenging, obviously the longer this drags out, but we just have to be resilient and stay strong. Keeping the health and safety at the forefront, that's what we're going to continue to make drive, that's what's going to continue to drive our decisions."