Extra year of eligibility creates questions among college programs

Updated: Mar. 14, 2020 at 11:54 PM CDT
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HATTIESBURG, Miss. (WDAM) - Just about every corner of the world closed its gates on athletics this week with the threat of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) continuing to brew.

One corner of Hattiesburg – Pete Taylor Park – joined in. You might not hear many chirps from the “Right Field Roost” in the next few weeks. The University of Southern Mississippi’s baseball season could very well be over just 16 games in.

“I hate it for our players, I hate it for everybody’s players,” said USM head baseball coach Scott Berry. “I hate it for the fans because our fans are passionate. The baseball world just has that empty feeling in it right now. This is bigger than baseball and all the things that have been affected by this unfortunate situation."

The National Collegiate Athletic Association Thursday cancelled all winter and spring championships, creating a ripple effect among other leagues.

The National Junior College Athletic Association suspended practice and competition for all sports until April 3.

“It was an interesting scenario to sit down with your players in the middle of the season right before conference play and say, ‘Okay, time to pack it up and head home and we don’t know when we’ll see you again,’” said Jones College head baseball coach Chris Kirtland.

In addition, the NJCAA pushed back the start of its national basketball tournaments to April 20.

It’s a difficult reality for programs like No. 1 Pearl River Community College and the No. 10 Jones College Lady Bobcats, who hoped to make championships runs in March.

“We’re obviously heartbroken right now to not be able to compete and those guys put so much into it,” said PRCC athletic director Jeff Long. “Our staff and our coaches put so much into it. This is unprecedented, never been seen before, we’ve never dealt with anything like this.”

The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics followed suit on Thursday – suspending all athletics until March 26.

William Carey’s baseball coach of 35 years, Bobby Halford, isn’t accustomed to being away from Milton Wheeler Field. He admits the suspension of activity creates problems if the Crusaders eventually return.

“The longer you stay away from it, you’re looking at pitchers [who] are on a routine and if they’re not ready, all of a sudden you have to jump back out there and play,” Halford said.

The eye-opening development Friday was the NCAA Division I Coordination Committee’s decision to grant spring student-athletes an additional year of eligibility. Details of the eligibility relief are to be finalized “at a later time.”

The NJCAA made a similar proclamation – “extending the hardship season completion ruling to 60 percent.”

In other words, should teams cut the cord 60 percent of the way into their season, student-athletes will not be charged a year of eligibility. In addition, the NJCAA increased its allowable number of Letters of Intent for the 2020-21 season.

While the rulings are grand gestures for those otherwise losing their final year of athletics, it raises questions for both college and junior college coaches.

“Each story is going to be different for every kid and each story deserves to be handled the right way,” Kirtland said. “I’m interested but also anxious to see how it plays out.”

It’s a puzzle particularly interesting in college baseball.

The NCAA currently allows 11.7 baseball scholarships and a 25 percent scholarship minimum. An increase in the number of scholarships granted could affect athletic departments with lower budgets.

An extra year of eligibility would allow seniors to remain seniors, freshmen to remain freshmen, etc., etc.

With new recruiting classes incoming each year, does the number of players a program is permitted to roster increase?

“There’s so much gray area right now and unknown about how they’re going to approach this and laying out the guidelines for how this works,” Berry said.

Fine-tuning the details is the next step, and the future decisions collegiate organizations make likely will depend in large part on the the development of the Coronavirus threat .

But, for now, there sit many vacant fields, empty arenas and complicated questions.

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