Jason Fein, the athletic director at Bates College, said he was not surprised when the New England Small College Athletic Conference announced Thursday that it is canceling conference competition and championships for the 2020-21 winter sports season in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“The conditions on the ground have not really changed much since this fall, at least not for the better,” Fein said. “The students and everyone on campus have done a great job keeping the cases down, but there’s nothing we’ve seen to move the needle on changing the way we operate right now.”

The 11-member league includes three colleges in Maine: Bates, Bowdoin and Colby. The conference was among the first in the country to cancel fall sports season, on July 10. NESCAC schools, which compete in NCAA Division III, will be allowed to schedule nonconference contests this winter if they choose.

Thursday’s announcement was made as a joint statement from the league’s presidents.

Separately, Bowdoin published a list of Frequently Asked Questions on its website that state, in part, that it is “highly unlikely” for any fall or winter sports teams to have some sort of season in the spring and that even the spring sports’ ability to hold competitive games is very much in doubt.

“Based upon anticipated ongoing concerns regarding the spread of COVID-19 and current NCAA, CDC and State safety guidelines, it remains uncertain, but is unlikely our spring teams will compete this year,” the Bowdoin statement read.

“What we’ve tried to provide is as realistic an outlook as possible,” said Bowdoin Athletic Director Tim Ryan. “Certainly it would be our desire to be able to compete in the spring, but there are a lot of factors that are not working in favor of that.”

The NESCAC’s move to cancel its winter conference schedule was driven in part by many of its member schools, including Bowdoin, deciding to not have students return to campus until February.

“That’s a logistical point,” Ryan said. “The real drivers are the safety concerns surrounding the ongoing uncertainties, the restrictions around indoor athletic competitions, and the concerns around traveling safely to competitions.”

Both Bowdoin and Bates are also using athletic facilities for academic purposes and/or as their on-campus COVID-19 testing sites. Bates, which has a club hockey program, is using its ice rink to test students and staff. Bowdoin is using Morrell Gym, where its basketball and volleyball teams play, as its campus testing site, and other athletic facilities are being used as academic classrooms.

Winter high school sports in Maine, if they are allowed to play by the Maine Principals’ Association and state guidelines, will lose access to facilities at all three colleges, according to the athletic directors. Bates is home to state track and field championships, and Bowdoin is a site for swimming state championships, along with its indoor and outdoor track and hockey rink being used for regular-season meets and games.

“As of right now, we don’t have any immediate plans to have (high school) groups on campus,” Fein said. “If you’re not a student, faculty or staff, you’re not allowed to be in any building. I don’t see that changing in any immediate future.”

Ryan said at Bowdoin, “Our facilities are closed; closed through the end of the calendar year, and we have not communicated plans for the early part of 2021 to date.”

High school and youth hockey teams have played at Colby’s rink for decades, and area high school indoor track teams have practiced on Colby’s track.

“It’s likely our campus will still remain closed,” said Colby Athletic Director Mike Wisecup. “We don’t see that situation changing dramatically.”

Colby men’s hockey coach Blaise MacDonald said he understood NESCAC’s decision to cancel winter conference games.

“It’s not a surprise, but that doesn’t mean it’s not disappointing,” MacDonald said. “We’re in very challenging times that are very fluid. Our leadership is looking out for the welfare of all of our faculty, all of our students and all of our staff.”

Members of the Colby men’s hockey roster will now face decisions regarding whether to spend the winter working on individual skills or possibly taking a semester off to pursue junior hockey. Athletes will not lose a year of eligibility.

“Everybody’s in a different place,” MacDonald said. “But you come to Colby College for the reason, not the season. The reason is the education, and the season is frosting on the cake, so to speak. For all of us, we’ll just be optimistic about a full season next year.”

NESCAC athletic programs will be looking at ways to keep their athletes active when they are on campus.

“If our guys all come back and we have the ability to have some ice time, I really want them to have that,” said Bowdoin men’s hockey coach Jamie Dumont. “I’m going to try to paint a positive hockey picture for them and just want to make sure it doesn’t end on a phone call. Hopefully we have some time with them in the spring.”

Last season, the Colby men’s basketball team had its best season in years, playing in the conference championship game for the first time and reaching the NCAA Division III tournament. Coach Damien Strahorn was looking forward to seeing if the Mules could build on that success.

“I’ve been optimistic this entire time,” Strahorn said. “This is something we all knew was possible. The news today certainly stinks.”

Strahorn said there has been some discussion among the state’s 11 Division III programs about playing each other, but nothing concrete. Strahorn and his Mules are still planning to begin practices on Oct. 15.

“It’s a test. We’ll try to do what gives us the best chance to be as close to normal as we can be,” Strahorn said.

Central Maine Newspaper reporters Travis Barrett and Travis Lazarczyk contributed to this story.


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