October 1st marked the first day of official training for the 2020-2021 season. Usually, the start date is October 10th, but the NCAA has allowed some additional flexibility due to the uncertainty imposed by COVID-19. Additionally, rather than allowing a 19 week season where activity on a single day uses up a week, DIII teams in all sports are instead working with a 114 day season where each day of practice or competition counts only for itself.
Some schools are currently training without contact. Others are wrestling in small groups. Some are surely training as usual. Some schools are entirely or mostly online. If those schools are practicing, they are doing so without most of their wrestlers on campus.
As each school navigates the pandemic in its own way, there are a lot of questions about how the season will look, and many of them do not have answers. Some schools have postponed all fall semester competition. Others are competing in non-contact sports only, while a few are moving ahead with all sports and scheduling games where they can. The first DIII football game of the year happened on Saturday when Trine beat Adrian. Here are some questions that will be answered in time as the season progresses.
- When will the proposed regional alignment be finalized? There are seven new teams this year: Carthage, Elmira, Emory & Henry, Hiram, Iowa Wesleyan, New Jersey City, and Shenandoah. A regional alignment has been proposed but still awaits final approval.
- What happens after Thanksgiving? Many schools are either finishing the semester then or moving all instruction online following the holiday. This could create a scenario where wrestlers train until Thanksgiving but then take a break until they return for the second semester. At minimum, that would be a month off between November 26th and December 26th.
- How will wrestlers qualify for the NCAA Championships? The field will, pending final approval, be lowered from 180 to 135 athletes this year, though the six regions will still be contested. Will the qualifiers per weight be announced before the events, or will the DIII Wrestling Committee select some number of qualifiers after the regionals? (As an aside, the reduction in field size will result in approximately $40,000-$50,000 in savings to the NCAA based on estimates of per diem, transportation, participant awards, and other expenses)
- How will qualifiers be allocated? With six regions, qualifying the top two (maybe after a true 2nd match) takes care of 120 of the 135 qualifiers. Allocating the other 15, either before or after the regionals, will be a challenge, especially given #5 below.
- How many matches will the athletes get? The answer will be different in each conference for sure. Some teams may not compete at all. Others may compete a lot more. Large tournaments seem unlikely, and if some schools only begin to compete in early to mid January, a large number of wrestlers will approach the postseason with low double digit matches and limited chances for competition among top contenders at each weight. This will complicate any attempt to allocate at-large bids to the championships.
- What sort of testing will take place? The NCAA COVID-19 Advisory Group released a set of guidelines for basketball suggesting that athletes and those who work closely with them be tested three times per week during the season. While it is only a guideline, any school adapting this suggestion for wrestling will need to come up with a way to pay for a lot of tests. According to NCAA data, the average DIII team in 2018-19 had 27.2 athletes. Add in some coaches and that could be as many as 90 tests a week for the duration of the season.
- Finally, how many teams will compete this season, and when will schools make that decision? School presidents and conference commissioners will work together to determine who can play and when. How students return to campus in January, what sort of return-to-play protocol is employed, and when competitions can begin will affect the start of the 2021 season.