BILLINGS — As coronavirus fears persisted nationwide Thursday, the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics followed the lead of professional sports leagues and major collegiate conferences by shutting down the remainder of its winter sports season.
The NAIA announced that it had canceled its winter championships due to the COVID-19 outbreak, including the women's basketball national tournament that was scheduled to be played in Billings beginning next week.
In a statement on its website, the NAIA said it is suspending “all remaining winter championship events, including those that are currently underway.”
The organization also said in its statement: “The health and safety of our student-athletes, as well as all involved in our championship events, is the NAIA’s highest priority.
“We will continue to monitor COVID-19 developments and NAIA leadership will work closely with our member institutions to determine the best path forward for future NAIA events, including all spring 2020 championships.”
The NAIA women's national tournament was scheduled for March 18-24 at First Interstate Arena at MetraPark. The men's tournament was slated to be played on those same dates in Kansas City.
On Wednesday, the NAIA announced its intent to conduct the tournaments as scheduled with attendance restricted to essential staff and players’ families. But that plan shifted as other collegiate conferences around the country, and at difference levels, began canceling their tournaments.
The Big Sky Conference on Thursday canceled the remaining three days of its men's and women's basketball championships taking place in Boise, Idaho. Later, the NCAA Division I men's and women's “March Madness” tournaments were also scrapped.
Rocky Mountain College women’s coach Wes Keller told 406mtsports.com that the NAIA’s resolution to halt its tournaments was prudent.
“It’s unfortunate, but I think the NAIA made the right decision looking out for our student-athletes and the public in general,” said Keller, whose team had an automatic bid to the tournament as its institutional host. “You feel bad for your seniors not getting the opportunity to go out and compete at a national tournament, but all in all I think the NAIA definitely made the right decision.”
“I can’t speak for everybody, but I’ve got to believe that most coaches agree with the decision that was made,” Keller said.
Rocky had a No. 7 seed for the tournament, and was scheduled to play Central Methodist (Mo.) in the first round on Wednesday. In all, five Frontier Conference teams got bids tourney bids.
Providence, the Frontier tournament champion, was a No. 6 seed and had a first-round game scheduled for Wednesday against Freed-Hardeman (Tenn.).
Carroll College and Montana Western each had No. 5 seeds. Western, the defending national champion, was scheduled to play Lindsey Wilson (Ky.) on Wednesday, while Carroll was set to play Columbia (Mo.) on Thursday.
Lewis-Clark State had a No. 6 seed. The Warriors were slated to face Talladega (Ala.) in the first round on Thursday.
“Definitely sad. There were a couple tears shed, for sure,” said Rocky senior forward Markaela Francis, whose stellar career came to an abrupt end due to the tournament's cancellation. “But at the same time you don't want to risk someone else's health for a game.”
Three Frontier teams got bids to the men’s tournament in Kansas City.
Carroll, a No. 3 seed, drew Texas Wesleyan in the first-round on Thursday. L-C State was a No. 2 seed and preparing to face Talladega on Thursday, while No. 4-seed Providence had a Wednesday game scheduled with Thomas More (Ky.).
Providence coach Steve Keller said the NAIA’s decision was correct.
“It’s real disappointing for our players, and everybody’s players. Everybody’s worked hard to get to this point,” said Keller, who added that his Providence team is “very disappointed, but they’re also very intelligent and they understand the seriousness of what’s going on in our country right now, and we’ve got to try to find ways to minimize the spread. And I think we’re taking the right step to do that.”