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NCAA testing guidelines led to MAC decision

Lycoming College never got to the point of finding how much it would cost to test its fall athletes for COVID-19 for a full season. Doing that much testing was never a reality.

Before the Middle Atlantic Conference suspended all sports for the remainder of the 2020 calendar year, officials at Lycoming explored whether the amount of testing being recommended by the NCAA was even feasible. But after checking with a number of entities, getting the amount of tests needed and having the results turned around in the necessary timeframe just wasn’t possible.

What followed was the decision of the school presidents of the MAC to suspend athletics through the fall semester. The announcement came two weeks after the MAC announced it was going to do what it could to play its fall sports season.

“The initial statement was we thought we could do it. We really believed we could play,” Lycoming Director of Athletics Mike Clark said. “But then then NCAA released some updated guidelines with more specific information about testing. And for us to turn around tests within 72 hours, I talked to a doctor about that, and she laughed. Around here it takes up to 14 days to get results back. It’s nobody’s fault that it went this way. We investigated it. But talking to people within the conference, to have results within 72 hours of a game, that’s a substantial number of tests.”

The NCAA’s newest guidelines included a recommendation to have testing done with results available within 72 hours of a competition. For fall sports, that meant likely as many as 300 tests per week Lycoming would have to produce because volleyball and soccer play multiple times per week, and football would need in the neighborhood of 100 tests per week itself.

Lycoming was going to be looking at approximately 3,000 tests to get through the fall season. Those tests can range between $100 and $150 apiece. And while Clark said he never got to the point of talking about the financial implications of testing with Lycoming President Dr. Kent Trachte, they weren’t going to allow the financial component to deter them from potentially playing a season.

It turned out the cost of the testing was moot after finding out there was no way they could get the number of tests needed with results in a timely manner. But it was the lack of available testing which caused Trachte to support the MAC resolution to suspend sports, he said in a statement.

“Our president loves athletics. Kent is awesome to us,” Clark said. “And he is unbelievably competitive himself. We were all working our tails off to make this work.”

The decision by the conference to suspend fall competition doesn’t prevent schools from practicing during the fall semester. In fact, Clark, who is also Lycoming’s football coach, said the school is exploring the rules and testing procedures it needs to follow in order to give its student-athletes the ability to practice during the fall semester, even if intercollegiate competition isn’t permitted.

In the MAC’s announcement of the suspension of fall sports, it said it is “exploring creative approaches and alternatives that will provide future competitive experiences for fall sport student-athletes in the spring semester as circumstances allow.” The NCAA also earlier this month approved a blanket waiver for Division III athletes who do not get to play at least 50% of their season. Those athletes will retain their year of eligibility and the semesters they’re in school will not count against their eligibility clock — student-athletes have 10 semesters to compete four years of eligibility.

So even if fall sports are able to play in the spring, which is the hope, if teams play fewer than half of its schedule, it almost counts as a free training camp for teams as they prepare for the fall 2021 season. For Clark, that will likely mean figuring out schedules which would allow soccer and lacrosse teams equal access to the field at the Shangraw Athletic Complex.

“The thing we have to be sensitive to as administrators is spring sports have already had one season negatively impacted. Winter sports have already been negatively impacted this year and it’s only July,” Clark said. “You can’t shortchange spring athletes at the expense of fall athletes. But you could have an awesome spring potentially if you can make it work. But for now, our focus has to shift to winter sports and salvaging some of their season.”

Clark has run through the gamut of emotions as the school, the conference and the NCAA has figured out what to do with fall sports amid the COVID-19 pandemic. He said the MAC’s decision last week to suspend sports offered a bit of relief just because of the finality of the answer. It allowed him and others to move on to the next step of the process to figure out.

But he couldn’t help but think about it being the first time since the mid-1980s that he won’t be part of a football game on a fall weekend. For defensive coordinator Steve Wiser, he’s been involved with high school and college football since the late 1960s.

“We had a lot of conversations that went into the planning for the fall,” Clark said. “It was frustrating at times, there was optimism and hope in others. Now there’s disappointment and relief at the same time. It’s been crazy. It’s been unique.”

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