Monday was a dark day for NCAA Division III golf at schools across Wisconsin after three conferences with state schools that sponsor the sport postponed fall sports during the 2020-21 school year until next spring in the face of the ongoing — and, in many places, worsening — COVID-19 pandemic.
The College Conference of Illinois & Wisconsin, the Northern Athletic Collegiate Conference and the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, which offer competitive golf opportunities through their 11 men's teams and 17 women's teams, all announced Monday the suspension of athletics through the fall season. The CCIW suspended "all fall conference competition and championships" while the WIAC suspended "all competition in women's golf and women's tennis," but did not specify in its release that its ruling would extend to UW-Eau Claire and UW-Stout — its only two schools that sponsor men's golf — as it did when the WIAC canceled its 2020 spring sports season in March.
Last week, the Upper Midwest Athletic Conference, which includes UW-Superior and Northland College, said it would forge ahead with the fall sports season. As it relates to men's and women's golf, the UMAC said competitions will be limited to UMAC teams only during the regular season with the conference championships remaining as originally scheduled.
The CCIW, which sponsors men's and women's golf, said that it would "maintain conference competition" for spring sports, including golf and tennis. The WIAC, which only sponsors a conference championship for its eight women's teams, would seek to schedule that competition during the 2020-21 spring term.
The WIAC took the unprecedented measure of canceling football, women’s soccer, women’s volleyball and men’s and women’s cross country during the entire 2020-21 school year. The CCIW Council of Presidents has "charged the conference staff with exploring competition opportunities" in the spring for those sports.
In a release, the NACC said it will share additional details, including proposed spring calendars, in the coming weeks. Despite canceling competitions, it said there will still be opportunities for skill development and team building through out-of-season practices and conditioning during the fall semester.
"Based on conversations leading up to the announcement, I was hopeful that golf would be viewed a bit differently than other sports due to the lower risk, and the fact that tournament golf has been happening all summer," Carthage women's golf coach Brandy Johnston wrote via email to Wisconsin.Golf. "That being said, I also knew deep down that a full cancellation was a possibility with the sharp rise of cases more recently. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed, but I think that the health and safety of our student-athletes is what's most important, and if this is the best way to keep them safe, then I support that."
Monday's decision marks the second straight semester that college golfers in those three conferences will not have a season.
This past spring, the NCAA canceled its spring championships, prompting conferences to suspend competition as well. The NCAA then offered COVID-19 eligibility relief to student-athletes on spring rosters, which it is poised to do again this fall, according to an FAQ document for Division III athletes on the NCAA website.
"In the spring, it was so sudden and so unheard of," said UW-Whitewater women's golf coach Andrea Wieland, whose team lost out on an opportunity to compete at the NCAA Division III Championship for the third year in a row. "You were like 'What is going on?' It was weird.
"I feel like this was in the works. We kind of could see the writing on the wall. You knew as more things were getting canceled and things were getting delayed, there was a possibility of this happening. I guess I was more prepared for it."
At the same time, Wieland was still left asking questions Monday after the NACC and the CCIW left open the possibility for its teams to play non-conference matches. Johnston said Carthage coaches were told that can happen after Oct. 1, while the WIAC's announcement seemingly spiked that idea, saying that schools "will retain the autonomy to establish practice opportunities within the limitations stipulated by the NCAA" during first semester.
Yet to be determined, meanwhile, is whether Monday's announcements will result in any Division III student-athletes, who are required by NCAA rules to pay their own tuition, room and board, abandoning the dream of playing college sports and looking toward larger schools — either in person or online — to finish their education.
"In D3, student-athletes are always students first, so I'm hopeful our current players will stay," Johnston wrote. "I've been given no indication otherwise."
Wieland added: "This is uncharted territory for all of us."
And, as dark as Monday may have seemed for some, Carthage men's golf coach David Roehl did his best to find light that will take him to the end of this fall's tunnel of competitive silence.
"From a developmental standpoint, I think you will have a better chance to work and help train the kids because we're not gone three or four days week and have to take time off for other things," Roehl wrote in an email to Wisconsin.Golf. "So I think it's a benefit from that perspective. ... Our players are tough and they can handle this."