MIAC winter sports get go-ahead

Saint Mary's coaches excited to get started

The Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) has voted to approve plans for a return of the winter sports season, according to an official announcement Wednesday.

The conference will return with a plan that will see its basketball and hockey sports return to seven-game seasons, in which every conference member plays each other once. The team with the highest win percentage, as long a they played over half the games, will be conference champ and receive an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. There won’t be conference postseason tournaments.

The schedules begin Feb. 6, but teams who opt in can schedule up to four nonconference games. And just like we’ve seen everywhere else, COVID-19 precautions will be a priority. Saint Mary’s won’t have any spectators attending events, benches will be distanced, and those who aren’t on the playing surface will be masked up. And when the season begins, teams will test for the virus three times a week, and just once a week in the preseason.

It’s a quick turnaround for all four hockey and hoops programs at Saint Mary’s, and we’ve seen even at the NBA level injuries are more frequent thanks to short offseasons, and the Cardinal coaches say these next couple of weeks of practice will require a balancing act.

“We’re going to be adjusting,” men’s basketball head coach Joe Fano said. “We have to make sure we’re not burning them out and not running them into the ground too hard, but at the same time trying to get them in shape for a game in two weeks.”

The hockey programs might have a harder time getting everyone in season form this quickly.

“We’re going to have some athletes come back and have trained for six or eight weeks and be ready to go day one, and we’re going to have some athletes, through no fault of their own, they’re just going to be behind because of the elements they were dealing with back home,” men’s hockey head coach Ryan Egan said. “That’s going to be one of our biggest challenges.”

So while the physical challenges will be there, the mental morale boost of getting everyone back will be well worth the challenge.

“Our girls love the sport,” women’s hockey head coach Sarah Murray said. “They love being on the ice. It’s their stress release. Now being allowed to be on the ice and their teammates and not have to worry about school or 2020, 2021 and everything that’s going on, I think having these games, even though it’s not a regular season, gives them a little bit of normalcy.”

“Half of our roster is seniors,” women’s basketball head coach David Foley said, “so to give them that last ride…They may not play competitive basketball past their senior season in this kind of setting, and to have any opportunity to go out there and play in a safe way–yeah, we’re willing to go out there, whether it’s two, five, seven, or however many it is. To have that opportunity is huge.”

The men and women’s hockey teams have already added a nonconference game each. The women’s team will host St. Scholastica Feb. 2, and the men’s team will host St. Scholastica Feb. 9. Both games will have puck drop at 7 p.m.

The NCAA Division III blanket waiver means no athletes will be charged a year of eligibility for competing in this season.