Collegiate Athletes Come to Terms with Suspended Seasons

Fall sports in the Big Sky have been canceled with only vague plans for a second semester return

By Micah Drew
Glacier High School cross country runner Simon Hill at practice at Glacier High School on Oct. 24, 2019. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Josie Windauer’s trajectory was all but assured. She was a three-year starter on the soccer pitch for Columbia Falls High School, a three year all-state selection and scored 33 goals her senior season, setting a school record and coming up just four shy of the all-class state record.

Windauer became the first Columbia Falls soccer player to sign with a Division I school when she committed to play for the University of Montana after graduation.

Her talent and speed on the pitch immediately stood out to Griz head coach Chris Citowicki when she attended a soccer camp in Missoula. He mentioned in an interview with Montana Sports Information that while she was “still a work in progress,” he doubted anyone could keep up with her on the field, even going so far as to say  “she’s going to be the most athletic kid in the conference.”

It looked like Windauer was set to be a force for the Griz as a freshman. She spent her summer doing conditioning workouts assigned by her new coach — three lifting sessions and three sprinting workouts each week, plus some skill drills.

However, Windauer, and Griz and Columbia Falls fans alike, will have to wait to see her tear up the field against Big Sky Conference opponents. Her upward trajectory, and that of most NCAA athletes this year, has hit a pandemic-sized speed bump.

It started in March, with the cancellation of conference basketball tournaments and March Madness. Spring seasons and championships followed suit. Since then, the fate of collegiate athletics has been one big question mark.

Six months after the NCAA originally suspended athletics prep sports are starting up in full swing, albeit laden with restrictions, but at the collegiate level the hiatus continues.

“I have waited for freshman season to come for a couple years,” Windauer said. “Since the season was postponed, I feel disappointed.”

The Big Sky Conference first announced a delay to the dates of fall competition on July 24, pushing the first games back to Sept. 14. Less than three weeks later, on the recommendation of the member schools’ athletic directors, the league postponed all fall sporting competitions until spring. 

For Windauer it was a blow to the ideals she’d had about her freshman season. Just days before the first postponement announcement, the Big Sky Preseason poll was released, with Montana ranked first in the conference. The Griz reached the NCAA tournament in 2018, and won the regular season conference title in 2019. That consistent success was one reason Windauer decided to play there.

“It’s special knowing that I am part of a team that has had so many victories in the past few years, and was full of leaders and living legends I looked up to,” Windauer said. “I can’t help but notice the high spirit and devotion that the girls and coaches have shown during these hard times.”

According to University of Montana director of athletics Kent Haslam, fall sports teams are currently considered to be in a “no competition time frame,” following the same rules when they aren’t in season.

For soccer, that means player are limited in how much time they are allowed to spend training as a team, and are only able to lift and practice together a few times a week. There is limited interaction allowed between coaches and players, but Citowicki is getting his athletes out on the field as much as possible and holds weekly scrimmages to get as much of a game-day feel as possible.

“Within our own team, the competition is great every practice,” Windauer said. “The Griz soccer team is known for our defense, so going up against some of the best defenders in the conference will make everyone better.”

Another Griz freshman, former Glacier High School runner and state cross country champion Simon Hill, found out about the official postponement while on a camping trip with his new cross country teammates.

“Even though we knew it was likely, it was really disheartening for all of us,” Hill said. “It took a little bit for it to settle in for everybody.”

The Griz cross country teams have continued with practice like a normal season, running before classes and following coach Clint May’s pre-pandemic conceived training plan. In lieu of the first meet, the team ran a time trial in Missoula. The rest of the season looks to be more of the same.

“I was really hoping to make a stamp for myself and compete with my teammates across the Big Sky Conference,” Hill said. “But the training doesn’t stop. We keep moving — we’re running together, we’ll follow the guidelines given to us and we won’t let this break us down.”

Josie Windauer of Columbia Falls faces Whitefish in a soccer match at Columbia Falls High School on Oct. 1, 2019. Columbia Falls beat Whitefish 3-0. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

While the Big Sky Conference opted to completely reschedule the fall season, some Division I institutions and other collegiate conferences and leagues have come to different decisions. An abbreviated version of the FBS football season is set to happen with six conferences taking part, and the Southeastern Conference is allowing soccer, volleyball and cross country to compete in regular season competitions.

The Division II Great Northwest Athletic Conference, which Montana State University Billings competes in, suspended its 17 fall sports in mid-July.

The NAIA has rescheduled the entire football season as well as the national championships for cross country, soccer and volleyball to 2021, but left the decision for regular season competition in the latter three sports up to the individual conferences. The Frontier Conference, home to five Montana schools, opted to hold both cross country and golf competitions this fall.

As of Sept. 3, the Big Sky has not released details about how the spring seasons will be structured, but plans are being made for soccer, volleyball and football conference championships.

At the national level, each sport’s championship committee has been charged with developing a plan to present to the NCAA. According to Haslam, the football championship committee recommended the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) Championship take place between April 18 and May 15 with a bracket reduced to 16 teams.

Details for the other fall-turned-spring championships are still under consideration, but the NCAA is suggesting brackets reduced by 50 percent among other recommendations.

Cross country will take the most thought to reconsider as a spring sport, Haslam said, calling it “unique,” since most cross country athletes also compete during the spring outdoor track season.

At a meeting of the NCAA Division I Competition Oversight Committee on Aug. 26, it was recommended that the national championship meet be canceled altogether. The Big Sky Conference has not yet announced whether it will hold a spring cross country championships.

Another NCAA provision adopted for the year allows all athletes to obtain a one-year extension to their collegiate eligibility, meaning Windauer and Hill will get a clean slate to redo their freshmen seasons.

“We’ve all hit pause,” Haslam. “But we’ll hit play again soon.”