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The toughest practices of the Morningside football team’s preseason came at the end of August. It was during those August days that players' jerseys would fill with sweat as the temperatures in Sioux City would reach near triple-digit numbers. But as Mustangs coach Steve Ryan reminded them throughout the workouts, things could be much worse.
They could not be playing football at all.
“It was like that every day,” Ryan said. “(So I just said) you’ve got to be thankful that you’re out here. That’s so often the way it is, right? We’re never quite thankful enough for the opportunities we’ve got. It is pretty special to be out here with those guys.”
Most of the attention on Saturday will be on Iowa State taking the football field. But the Cyclones won’t be the only ones playing this fall. NAIA teams across the state, including are all moving forward with fall sports, including football.>
Morningside football coach Steve Ryan is constantly reminding his team about what a great opportunity they have to play this fall. (Photo: Mike Byrnes / special to the Register)
“I think our student athletes and stuff understand that we are in a unique position and we are very grateful to be having this opportunity,” said Dordt director of athletics Ross Douma.
It's an opportunity many schools, big and small, across the state won’t be getting this fall. Iowa had its football season moved to the spring when the Big Ten Conference postponed it due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Missouri Valley Conference pulled the plug on its fall football schedule and Northern Iowa, opted to play any non-conference opponents. The Pioneer Football League also canceled its fall football season keeping Drake off the field.
Big schools weren’t the only ones impacted. Many of Iowa’s small schools, especially in the American Rivers Conference, decided to move football to the spring. That ended things for Buena Vista, Central, Coe, Loras, Luther, Simpson, Dubuque and Wartburg. But it didn’t mean the end for everyone.
NAIA schools got the green light to play this fall when it announced in July that conferences could compete in the fall or winter if they chose. So, the Great Plains Conference, Heart of America Conference and North Star Athletic Association, which all have Iowa schools, moved forward with football in the fall.
“The safety of our student athletes is our first priority,” said Northwestern president Greg Christy. “So, we spoke to a lot of individuals and got the best information we could about that first and then, we just felt that 18 to 23 years olds are some of the least affected individuals by the virus. So, we felt like this was a great opportunity.”
The opportunity was easier for NAIA schools which didn’t have to follow the new mandates put forward by the NCAA in the “Resocialization of Collegiate Sport” plan which required frequent testing with short windows for the results. Many of the small schools didn’t see it feasible.
Instead, Christy said the GPAC conducted coronavirus tests on all of their fall athletes and coaches on Aug. 14. He said there were approximately 300 tests including on 138 football players. Five football players tested positive. Instead of constant testing, only athletes that exhibit symptoms will go through more.
“Everybody is doing something a little bit different,” Christy said. “We had a lot of conversation at the national level at the NAIA office about testing and whether to mandate testing. Eventually they left it up to each conference.”
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Each school in the GPAC is also allowed to determine how many fans, if any, they’ll allow to attend games. Christy said Northwestern will operated with 50 percent capacity on attendance. Tailgating won’t be allowed.
“I think for us, we felt like we needed to do everything in our power, so long as it was safe to provide the opportunity for them,” Christy said.
But there will be a catch for all the teams. While the NAIA gave each conference the option of when to compete, the league did announce that it was moving its championship seasons from the fall to the spring. The Mid-States Football Association, which includes St. Ambrose, decided to move to the spring. Any team that qualifies for championship play will have to reboot in the spring to compete for a title. Douma said some teams may play a regular season game or two in the spring before the championships begin.
“There’s a great deal of excitement with return to activity,” Douma said. “I think that student athlete experience can be very powerful and enriching and there’s a lot to be derived from the experience that student athletes have.”
That’s part of the reason why the schools decided to move forward. Many of Iowa’s small schools like Dordt are comprised of student athletes. Not having sports could impact enrollment numbers. So, moving along was a necessity. Now it could be a huge opportunity for a big stage.
“We are really excited for the season to be here,” Christy said. “Its been a strange and unusual time for all of us and I know that our student athletes and our coaches and parents and fans are just thrilled that our teams get to play.”
Tommy Birch, the Register's sports enterprise and features reporter, has been working at the newspaper since 2008. He's the 2018 Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Reach him at email@example.com or 515-284-8468. Follow him on Twitter @TommyBirch.
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