A promising fall sports season for UCSB, which included the return of soccer’s College Cup to Harder Stadium, was put on extended hold by the Big West Conference on Wednesday.
The league’s board of directors announced that it has postponed all of its fall seasons through the end of the calendar year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Big West is the seventh NCAA Division I conference to delay its fall schedule.
The Gauchos reacted to the decision with a disappointing nod of concession.
“I think this is the right direction for the conference to go,” UCSB director of athletics John McCutcheon said. “I think all of us hoped that we would have been making more progress by now in battling the virus, within California as well as nationally, but that hasn’t happened.
“Unfortunately, it’s gone in the opposite direction, particularly here in California. I think it’s just the wise thing to do.”
The Big West also postponed fall tournament competition for golf and tennis, as well as practice events in other sports. But it noted in Wednesday’s statement that men’s and women’s basketball “are not impacted by this decision” and are still scheduled to begin their seasons on Nov. 10.
Although the NCAA has yet to cancel its fall championships, McCutcheon does not foresee UCSB playing host to the College Cup in December. Conducting the soccer championship during the spring “would be a challenge, as well, although we haven’t given up on that.”
“We don’t know what the dates would be and we don’t know how it would conflict with other things on campus,” McCutcheon said. “I can’t automatically say that we can do it, there are so many moving parts.”
UCSB competes in the Big West during the fall in the sports of men’s and women’s soccer, women’s volleyball, and men’s and women’s cross country. Although the Gauchos are a member of the Golden Coast Conference in men’s water polo, McCutcheon said the start of that season will also be delayed until 2021.
The Gauchos were set to have a big autumn. Their men’s soccer team was hoping to play in its own College Cup after making a run to the NCAA Sweet 16 last year with a 15-5-4 record. UCSB’s women’s soccer team is also coming off a good year, having finished 4-1-3 in the Big West and 8-5-6 overall.
But men’s coach Tim Vom Steeg believes that moving the soccer season to the spring “gives us the best chance to play a full season,” even if it does present him with several challenges with his personnel.
“We have Derek (Kryzda) who is a fifth-year senior who was coming back to school for three months to finish and play and has a job waiting for him in January,” he said. “We have other players like Carson (Vom Steeg) and Will Gillingham who were planning to graduate early… and Rodney (Michael) was going to look at professional opportunities (Major League Soccer starts in February).
“Everybody will have to make decisions, and we could lose some of our best players.”
But the silver lining, he added, is the improved chance of adding four international recruits who, because of travel bans, “were struggling to get here to the United States by September.”
UCSB was also looking for a banner fall in women’s volleyball. The Gauchos, who came within a set of upsetting No. 2 Texas in the second round of last year’s NCAA Tournament, are returning six of their top eight players from a team that went 23-6.
But coach Nicole Lantagne Welch conceded that the Big West’s decision was “a smart one and in the best interests of everyone’s health.”
“You just look around the country and the cases are going up, and you see what is happening with MLB,” she said. “Just after a few games there is already an outbreak and cancellations and it seems it would be very difficult to pull off a season in the fall.”
Her volleyball players would have already arrived on campus in a normal year.
“Now we will assume we will come back more when school begins and start practicing and workouts this fall when it is safe to,” Lantagne Welch said. “We have stayed and will stay very connected remotely until we are in person again.”
The Big West board stated that it is allowing each member school to determine when its student-athletes can return to campus, although, “on-campus, athletic-related activity will follow strict compliance with NCAA regulations, institutional policies, and public health guidelines.”
UCSB has been planning a hybrid schedule of classes that does include a portion of on-campus instruction.
“We will be working on plans to bring students back on campus at some point late in the summer or in early fall for training even if most of our classes wind up being online,” McCutcheon said.
That is good news for Lantagne Welch, who must integrate six freshmen on her team who were ranked in the top 25 of recruiting classes by VolleyHigh.
“Getting an opportunity to practice and train and acclimate our freshmen ahead of competition will be helpful for our team,” she said.
Men’s water polo coach Wolf Wigo, whose Gauchos went 21-7 last year, said most of his players are already back in town and training on their own.
“There is a chance we will redshirt a number of players this year even if there is a start,” he said. “In the spring, there would be a chance it would be cancelled at some point unless things change for the better.”
The men’s and women’s cross country teams at UCSB were also primed for the fall.
“My heart goes out to our student-athletes, especially our distance runners who have been pushing their off-season mileage in anticipation of the fall season,” coach Cody Fleming said.
Those runners will be among the most impacted by the Big West’s decision, he added.
“You’re going to essentially try to run three sports in a condensed amount of time with cross country, indoor track and field, and outdoor track and field,” Fleming pointed out.
“The national landscape will be all over the place,” he added. “You’re not going to run a cross country season in January in Madison, Wisconsin, and it’ll be difficult for West Coast schools to do indoor track and field any time after February because we all rely on universities with facilities.
“Basically, things are now in a logistical bottleneck with trying to plan out seasons while closely monitoring the COVID issue. COVID’s not going away, so the question is can we participate in sport safely?”