BOZEMAN — Having talked to high schoolers around the country, Jeff Choate hopes those in Montana realize how fortunate they are.
The Montana State coach believes the state’s push forward to play high school sports during the coronavirus pandemic was the right decision. And he feels a low level of cancellations and known cases among teams backs that up.
Choate said his squad, which had its season postponed to the spring, is living vicariously through high school programs.
“It may not look exactly like it always does with crowds packed into the stands,” Choate said, “but they’re getting that opportunity to go out there with their brothers and enjoy this great sport.”
High school and college sports are in a precarious position this fall because of the pandemic. High schoolers in some states lost their seasons, others are allowed to play. Some college season schedules were altered, others have continued on.
Montana State coaches and officials are trying to figure out what it all means for them. And top issues right now are roster space, scholarships and eligibility.
After receiving more early commitments this year than normal, Choate said the Bobcats can’t accept many more because they don’t know what their roster size will look like in the future.
Choate pointed to prep players in Montana. If they knew where they wanted to go, they made sure to commit in hopes of securing a spot. Because right now, many Division I-worthy athletes have little guarantee of a scholarship or a spot on a team.
“I think there’s a few kids that waited too long, unfortunately for them,” Choate said. “There’s nobody else that’s taking any kids right now. You can’t because you don’t know what the other end of this is.”
Because fall championships were moved to the spring or canceled, the NCAA allowed fall sport athletes an additional year of eligibility through a blanket waiver. This would provide them more flexibility as they make decisions about their careers.
This may have an effect on future players at Division I schools, though. Choate doesn’t believe this will impact Montana State much, especially as it pertains to in-state players. Many of MSU’s top recruits, Choate said, are already committed.
The Bobcats focused on the Treasure State, with recruits including Bozeman’s Kenneth Eiden IV and Red Lodge's Elijah Reynolds, because of the promising standouts here. But finding room for more players, including transfers, may be tricky.
The NCAA declared financial aid for the athletes who use the extra year of eligibility will not count against team limits in 2021-22. Schools also cannot cancel or reduce scholarships if an athlete opts out due to coronavirus concerns.
Bobcats offensive coordinator Justin Udy said earlier this month no players have opted out because of the pandemic. But scholarship availability has been a top-priority concern for MSU officials.
MSU has spearheaded a campaign to raise money for scholarships. The effort named #PlantTheFlag was started with the hopes of raising $3 million for athlete education, medical and nutrition expenses, all of which are traditionally covered by generated revenues in normal years.
MSU hopes that would cover for the lost revenue in case the 2020-21 seasons are fully canceled. Therefore, teams will have more options to handle their roster sizes.
MSU athletic director Leon Costello hopes the deficit can be made up by selling tickets to football games in the spring. He said, despite losing money since last winter, Montana State has not cut programs or jobs in the athletic department. Still, MSU is trying to prepare for worst-case scenarios.
Even with extra eligibility, not all Montana State players may return. Some have redshirted already and will finish their degrees this semester or some may simply be ready to move on. Choate suspected most of his players will remain on their current schedules to graduate.
Udy said MSU’s coaching staff has discussed its roster outlook extensively. But he added it’s “very, very hard to know how it’s going to play out for each specific kid” because each individual has a different approach to their own scenarios.
Whatever they choose, the Bobcats will adjust. This is just one element the athletic department has to take into account. And depending on scholarship availability, the decisions for current college athletes around the country may eventually impact current high school players hoping to continue playing.
“I think a lot of those decisions will end up playing themselves out as you go along,” Udy said. “Our biggest thing with that, I feel like, is whatever is in the best interest of the guys and making sure we do the research for the players and make sure they know what their options are, where their eligibility stands for each individual case, where they stand within the football program, and if there’s a decision that can be made to help them.
“We’re doing what’s best for our players, so I’m really, really happy with the way Coach Choate and our whole staff has come up with a plan to take care of each guy when they need to be cared for. It’s not just a cookie-cutter thing. It’s very, very complex.”