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Pandemic has deflated region’s NCAA II, III, NAIA and junior college basketball seasons

Saint Martin’s women’s basketball coach Christy Martin watches on during a 2019 game in Lacey, Wash. The Saints have played just three games this season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  (Courtesy of Saint Martin's University)
Saint Martin’s women’s basketball coach Christy Martin watches on during a 2019 game in Lacey, Wash. The Saints have played just three games this season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Courtesy of Saint Martin's University)

As NCAA Division I men’s and women’s basketball continues to push through a global pandemic in a mostly fanless, postponement-heavy and logistical frenzy of a season, regional small college programs have faced considerable hardship.

The Great Northwest Athletic Conference (Division II), Northwest Conference (Division III), Cascade Collegiate Conference (NAIA) and Northwest Athletic Conference (junior colleges) are navigating opt-outs, delays, severely truncated schedules, stringent social restrictions and bans, and COVID-19 testing resources on limited budgets.

Several teams may not see the floor in the 2020-2021 academic year.

Others may experience fewer than a dozen games without the possibility of a postseason berth.

Some decisions are made by the respective schools. Others are government mandates.

Of the more than two dozen college basketball programs in Oregon, only four institutions – Oregon, Oregon State, Portland and Portland State – are allowed to play, per Gov. Kate Brown’s directive.

This largely affects dozens of Eastern Washington and North Idaho products who litter the rosters and coaching staffs in the GNAC, NWC, CCC and NWAC.

Here’s how they’re dealing with what many small-college players already consider a lost season, despite not losing a year of eligibility.

Most GNAC teams have opted out: The transition from a little Washington 2B high school program to NCAA Division II Western Washington was already going to be a tall task for freshman Danny Rigsby.

Rigsby, a 5-foot-9 guard who starred at St. George’s , has battled injuries in his first year on the Bellingham campus. His development has also been stunted by a lack of team contact and practices.

“It’s been the hardest transition of my life,” Rigsby said. “I haven’t played in a year. My first practice was yesterday. I was so rusty.”

WWU is among the seven schools in the 10-team Great Northwest Athletic Conference that have either opted out of a conference schedule or the entire season.

WWU has six games scheduled, Rigsby said.

GNAC schools began playing games this month, but some of Rigsby’s friends at other levels have been playing much longer.

“It makes me really sad,” Rigsby said. “It’s not really about the game anymore. It’s about other people putting their differences aside and work toward a common goal, so we can get back to normal.”

Saint Martin’s University in Lacey, Washington, is one of three teams pursuing a truncated GNAC schedule, joining Seattle Pacific and Northwest Nazarene in Nampa, Idaho.

Ferris graduate Christy Martin is the fourth-year head coach of the Saint Martin’s women’s team (1-2), which features former University High standout Claire Dingus and former Mt. Spokane standout Emily Nelson.

Martin said the Saints could be eligible for the postseason if they play at least 11 games and have a favorable record. The GNAC Tournament is canceled, but regional and national tournaments are still on the table.

Saint Martin’s wasn’t allowed to conduct 5-on-5 practices until two days before a Jan. 8 season opener against Seattle Pacific.

The Saints are in a whirlwind season, but they have the full support of the administration to play as many games as they can, Martin said.

“It’s been rough. A logistical nightmare,” said Martin, whose team had just its seventh full practice of the season on Wednesday despite already playing three games. “There’s been a schedule change every week.”

The GNAC is composed of schools from Washington, Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and British Columbia.

Fading optimism: Former Post Falls standout Max McCullough had already carved out a fine college career at NAIA Eastern Oregon before deciding to pursue a fifth and final year of eligibility.

He didn’t expect to be running basketball plays on a football field in the fall months and to still be stuck in limbo in January, a time he thought the Mountaineers would be beginning their delayed season.

“We’re not doing anything, still can’t have any contact,” said McCullough, an All-American as a sophomore in 2018. “We haven’t had any contact since Day 1 this year.”

EOU is a member of the 12-team Cascade Collegiate Conference. Seven programs are based in Oregon and can’t play under state restrictions.

Two Washington teams – Evergreen State and Walla Walla – have opted out, leaving NAIA powers Lewis-Clark State (Lewiston) and College of Idaho as the Cascade’s only two teams to play consistently this season.

The Northwest University of Kirkland, Washington, has also played games since November, mostly exhibitions against Division I programs.

Meanwhile, teams from the Montana-heavy Frontier Conference and other portions of the country have played a relatively normal schedule since November.

McCullough is hoping for the best but expecting the worst.

“I’m not too optimistic about us playing any games.” he said. “We have had three or four projected start dates and whenever we get close, they don’t happen.”

Three underclassmen have left McCullough’s team because of the circumstances.

“The state is banning contact for everyone but Division I schools,” he said. “And we’re being as safe as we can, have similar testing, but I guess they’re a bigger priority.”

Bushnell, a CCC school in Eugene, sent a signed basketball and letters from its men’s and women’s team to Gov. Brown requesting the same exemption afforded to the four Division I schools.

“We do have a testing module in place. We have submitted all the paperwork,” Bushnell Athletic Director Corey Anderson told the Eugene Register-Guard last month. “Is it to the level of what the Pac-12 is? No. We cannot afford that. But we also don’t know what they want or even if it’s been read and needs to be ratified, or read and needs to be edited, because we haven’t received a reply.”

NWAC remains hopeful: Junior college men’s basketball power North Idaho College – a team that sent six players to the NCAA Division I level last season – has started the “red phase” of its return to a delayed spring basketball season.

Nearby Community Colleges of Spokane is also gearing up.

Players and coaches must wear masks and can’t have more than 10 people in the gym at once, including staff.

The Northwest Athletic Conference – comprised of more than 30 teams in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and British Columbia and split into four regions – won’t host a major postseason tournament but may split the regions into separate tournaments after a conference-only schedule

Oregon junior college programs, which make up nearly half the NWAC, can’t play, per the state’s restrictions. Multiple NWAC programs in Western Washington have already opted out of the spring season.

Though NIC is in Idaho, which has much looser social distancing restrictions than Washington and Oregon, the Cardinals are adhering to the NWAC’s stricter protocols and hoping for a season.

“We still believe we can get our guys recruited and get them to the next level, even if we play a season or not,” NIC men’s coach Corey Symons said. “Hopefully, we can play several games in our eight-team East Region. If we can’t, we will pursue the possibility of playing some (National Junior College Athletic Association) teams.”

While Symons wishes he was already 15 games into his season like any other normal year, he has found solace in the layoff.

“It’s been really tough on the players, but it’s been bittersweet for me,” Symons said. “I haven’t missed my own kids’ games because we’re not playing.”

Most NWC teams not playing: The Northwest Conference, which includes NCAA Division III men’s powers Whitworth and Whitman, is a shell of its former self.

While both the Pirates (2-3) and Whitman (begins season Friday) are forging ahead, five teams from the nine-team conference are from Oregon and can’t play.

Two of those Oregon programs – Lewis & Clark (Portland) and Willamette (Salem) – have already canceled their seasons completely.

To make up for the loss of the conference games, Whitworth faces Whitman, Puget Sound and Pacific Lutheran four times each.

“Obviously, everyone’s had trials with this pandemic, and our student-athletes, I’ve been really proud of how resilient they’ve been,” Pirates second-year coach Damion Jablonski said in December. “The main thing (has been) maintaining hope. … To have games on the schedule, that’s provided a huge amount of hope for us.”

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