Carroll football

The Saints prepare to run out onto Nelson Field before a game last season. Just last week, Frontier Conference coaches, athletic directors and presidents came together to change fall sports schedules because of COVID-19.

HELENA — Frontier Conference football teams have somewhat of an idea of the future regarding the 2020 season.

Even if that means the schedule may look different than in years past.

The conference released an eight-game schedule that will start on Sept. 12. The new schedule not only pushed back the start of the season by two weeks, but also reduced the amount of games from its original 10-game slate.

Frontier Conference commissioner Kent Paulson said that the concern in rearranging the schedule was not only student safety but also to give them the best possible student-athlete experience.

But how did it all come together?

The past March, Paulson was in Lewiston, Idaho watching the Frontier Conference men’s and women’s championship basketball games.

He knew as many as eight Frontier teams had a good chance to represent the Frontier at the NAIA National Tournament in Billings and Kansas City.

“On our way home, I remember hearing basketball tournaments were being altered (because of COVID-19),” Paulson said. “By the time we got home, the NAIA had taken some very decisive actions to cancel the tournament and spring sports.”

Paulson immediately assigned his school’s athletic directors to head up multiple task forces on how to schedule each fall sport.

He knew planning earlier would be beneficial.

“We started looking at fall sports just to try to stay ahead of the curve,” Paulson said. “These athletic directors crafted a variety of options, not knowing what the NAIA’s decision would be. All we knew was that by July 1 the NAIA would release their plan.”

A few weeks ago, the NAIA announced that, based on input by school presidents, athletic directors, conference commissioners, athletic trainers and health care professionals, at least half of the participating institutions would need to receive clearance from local authorities to return to competition, and the earliest date any team could start practicing would be Aug. 15.

“We then started meeting through a virtual call where every athletic director would talk options,” Paulson said. “We tried to put ourselves in the best position so we could find the one that fit the guidelines.”

The conclusion came down to two options regarding a new football schedule.

Paulson said the first option was an eight-game schedule with the first game being a non-conference game.

“The initial thinking behind that was, we had already cancelled spring football so we weren’t sure with the amount of time the NAIA was giving us,” Paulson said. “We thought we could take a little pressure off coaches and players, and you were going to play that same team at the end of the year.”

Carroll, for example, starts and ends its schedule against the College of Idaho. Montana Tech starts and ends its season against Montana State Northern, and so on.

Another option that the coaches and athletic directors took to their university’s presidents were a nine-game schedule.

“They usually don’t take schedules to the presidents but, in addition to safety, there was also a price tag was attached to this, so they went back to looking at an eight-game schedule,” Paulson said.

A nine-game schedule also brought up questions about fairness as to which teams were going to get five home games.

“It was a vigorous discussion,” Paulson said. “At the end, everyone landed on an eight-game schedule because it was balanced.”

The only resolution that was needed was a vote on whether the first game was going to be a conference or non-conference contest.

“The majority wanted that first game to be a conference game,” Paulson said. “We tried to be as fair as we could.”

The schedule also included Montana schools playing Oregon schools later in the season.

Unlike Frontier Conference institutions in Montana, Southern Oregon and Eastern Oregon are on the quarter system, so they won’t start school until late September.

Schools such as Carroll, Montana Tech and others will have to juggle academics and athletics simultaneously because of the Aug. 15 start date.

“What the schools did was move up their academic calendar so they could finish the semester at Thanksgiving rather than Christmas, that way the students don’t have to come back and increase any risk (of getting COVID-19),” Paulson said.

As for other fall sports, volleyball was changed to a 10-week, 20-game conference schedule, while cross country and golf remained with their original schedules because they already fit into the new NAIA guidelines.

Those sports can report for preseason training starting Aug. 15.

“I really applaud our coaches, our athletic directors and our presidents,” Paulson said. “Everybody worked hard. The bottom line is that we had a schedule for all of our fall sports that we wish we could use, but the reality with COVID-19 is that we needed to make smart modifications and address everything we could.”

The result was an eight-game football schedule and 20-game volleyball schedule that coaches, for the most part, are pretty happy with.

“Everybody gets to play everybody,” Carroll coach Troy Purcell said. “We just want the opportunity to play the best.”

Ryan Kuhn covers Carroll College athletics and high school sports for the Independent Record and 406mtsports.com. Follow him on Twitter at @rskuhn

Load comments