University of Alaska Fairbanks Chancellor Dan White on Friday announced that the university is tentatively "opting in" to a postponed Great Northern Athletic Conference basketball season.
“What this means for UAF is that we are not closing the door on the possibility of competition if we deem it safe to do so after the holidays,” White said in a statement released by UAF. “Opting in does not obligate UAF to compete, but it preserves our right to do so when the time comes and we feel it can be done safely.”
White's comments followed a GNAC announcement earlier in the day explaining that the conference would move forward with modified conference-only men's and women's basketball schedules beginning after the new year but that only four of the conference's 10 teams will be involved.
"Four teams – Alaska Fairbanks, Northwest Nazarene, Saint Martin’s and Seattle Pacific – have indicated that they will participate in the 2021 season. Six institutions have decided that they will not participate in the conference basketball season for reasons related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Institutions not competing in the GNAC season are Alaska Anchorage, Central Washington, Montana State Billings, Simon Fraser, Western Oregon and Western Washington," the GNAC statement reads.
The GNAC statement explains that new schedules are being revised to minimize travel and emphasize the health and safety of student-athletes, coaches and staff.
"Teams will play games on consecutive days against the same opponent in the same location, with games played on Fridays and Saturdays. The men’s and women’s schedules will mirror each other, with two competing schools playing each other on the same dates at opposite locations," the statement reads. "Teams will comply with NCAA, state and local health protocols, including weekly COVID testing, mask-wearing by participants not actively on the court and isolation and quarantine in the event of positive tests or exposure. Additionally, the conference agreed that all competitions will be played without spectators."
White, during a virtual news conference Friday afternoon, said that opting-in means "leaving the decision open to play should the conditions allow it at the time."
"That’s basically the question, is the door today open or closed and some teams decided to close the door and not further consider athletics, or men’s and women’s basketball, as a possibility in the new year. For UAF, we thought we needed to know more about ... what the situation would be in January."
White said Friday afternoon that UAF is exploring options for broadcasting games so fans can watch from afar.
"We think that there will be fans in chairs, they just won’t be in the Patty Center," he said. "The GNAC has voted that there not be fans at games. That’s a GNAC decision."
Unlike other UAF teams, the men's hockey team does not play in the GNAC but in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association. White said he was on a WCHA board of directors call Tuesday and that a decision as to whether to move forward with the hockey season will have to be made by next Tuesday.
"At that call, we agreed to the return to play guidelines and agreed that teams would need to respond within one week, from Tuesday, whether they were going to opt in or opt out," White said. "So, we haven't notified the WCHA of a decision specifically, but as I indicated in our communication today, it's our intent at this point to take a similar approach with all of our teams."
A statement from the University of Alaska Anchorage on Friday morning announced that the school will not compete in any indoor winter sports for the 2020-21 season.
"I weighed many factors and relied upon the guidance of public health officials to make the very difficult decision that our indoor winter sports teams would not compete this season," UAA Chancellor Cathy Sandeen said.
The hockey teams from UAF and UAA had been scheduled to play multiple games next month, starting on Dec. 4. Even if UAA hadn't already made the choice to cancel its hockey season, White said that the December games would not have gone ahead, adding that the statement from Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy on Thursday about rising COVID-19 cases in the state played a role in the decision.
"The governor came out with his recommendation yesterday to be extra careful here over the next three weeks and that's outside of the three weeks, but just out of an abundance of caution we wanted to make sure that, especially during the period that we're doing everything we can," White said.
The announcements on Friday came as one UAF team is competing in the Lower 48. The Nanooks rifle team is in Memphis, Tennessee, where they will compete against the Memphis Tigers rifle team today.
"There are a number of reasons we wanted to allow the rifle team to go," UAF athletics director Keith Champagne said during the virtual news conference Friday. "As you guys know, we have a dynasty in terms of our rifle program, and the rifle trip this year is critical, because we have the opportunity to compete for another national championship. So, the rifle team will be in Memphis, at Ole Miss, and El Paso, Texas, until the 20th and they'll return back and they won't leave the University of Alaska Fairbanks again until it's time to compete in the spring."
Champagne noted that the earliest date for spring rifle competitions would be in March.
Asked how the UAA opt out will impact travel and scheduling for the Nanooks, White said that is precisely why conferences needed decisions this week or next week — in order to figure out what a season looks like with only four teams in the GNAC.
"Clearly this season will be different," White said. "It will be a much simpler season and much, I think, safer season, because we will do much less traveling. With UAA opting out, we don't have in-state competition; we don't have the ability to just travel down the road and play one of the games."
Contact staff writer Sam Ferrara at 459-7575. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMoutdoors.