While many businesses have altered their operations in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, team athletics and the outbreak have not really gotten along well up to this point.
One of the latest examples of that sour relationship came this week when the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) voted to move close-contact fall sports, including football, to the spring. That means you will not find the Georgia Military College Bulldogs, a perennial NJCAA Top 20 program, charging onto Davenport Field for competition until March 2021 at the earliest.
Longtime GMC head coach Bert Williams gave his reaction to the decision to The Union-Recorder Friday.
“Personally I’ve always felt like it was a better plan of action to try to do the best we could’ve in the fall as a national organization, but the way things were moving across the country there were enough areas where there was higher level of concern about being able to play,” he said. “I really do think the NJCAA put some good thought into how to put it together structurally.”
And with the decision to play in spring already made, programs have more time to plan for the spring rather than scramble for a season originally scheduled to kick off in late August.
The governing body for the country’s junior college athletics has also moved men’s and women’s soccer and court volleyball to the spring. The soccer switch will affect GMC also while men’s and women’s cross country will stay put as a fall sport.
JUCO football teams aren’t exactly afforded the luxuries enjoyed by higher-division and professional programs. When Williams’ team has an away game, his guys load onto a charter bus, not an airplane, and often make stops along the way to game sites. Each bathroom break or team meal is another opportunity for players and coaches to get exposed to the novel coronavirus.
The NJCAA has split the football calendar into two parts: the fall practice season and spring championship season. The fall will serve what is normally the purpose of spring football, but in an expanded role. Teams are permitted 60 consecutive calendar days for practice and scrimmages between Aug. 15 and Nov. 15. Schools may schedule three scrimmage dates against outside competition with each scrimmage limited to one opponent (so no jamboree-style competition).
The spring championship season begins with preseason practice on March 1, 2021, with the first games allowed on March 25. Teams can play only a maximum of eight games through May 22, giving them eight weeks for eight games, and the NJCAA National Championship is scheduled for June 3, 2021. No determination has been made as of yet for any other postseason bowl games. GMC had 10 games scheduled for the upcoming fall, so some tweaking will need to be done before March.
The move to spring comes at a pretty big cost, on the field at least, for JUCO programs. Players use junior college as a stepping stone to a four-year school. Some student-athletes graduate from JUCO in December and move on to their next institution in the spring. Williams said guys who fit in that category (often between 15 and 20, also counting the ones who will sign in February) will practice and work out with the team through the fall, but will not participate in any contact drills to reduce risk of injury. Of course, this could be looked at as a positive by the players as they will get three years eligibility at their next school instead of just two, as many who move on from GMC often do.
Despite losing some expected contributors, the fall practice season also gives programs more time to coach up incoming freshmen and transfers.
“You’ve got some give and take there,” Williams said.
GMC has already announced it will hold in-person instruction this fall barring any negative changes with the pandemic, so Bulldog football players are expected to report to the Milledgeville campus in mid-August. GMC coaches will then take them through an abbreviated offseason workout program in preparation of fall practice.
“We’re going to take a few weeks and make sure our guys are at a good level of overall physical shape before we start doing anything that involves pads and contact,” the GMC head coach said.
One hurdle, though pretty far down the road, is that JUCO programs will in essence play two seasons in 2021 provided that the pandemic allows. The spring season is set to end in late May or early June, and some players may turn around to play the fall 2021 season, preparations for which would begin in early August.