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College sports: Even as fall cancellation appeared inevitable, announcement still stings for Bulldogs

NSIC suspended fall and winter competition through Dec. 31.

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Minnesota Duluth defensive back Tyrik Carmickle (left) and linebacker Isaac Erdmann tackle Minot State running back Isaiah Hall in the first half of UMD football's home opener last September. (file / News Tribune)
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When Minnesota Duluth athletic director Josh Berlo and senior associate athletic director Karen Stromme found out the final details for the NSIC’s plan for the fall season Thursday morning, they knew it was their job to deliver the glum news.

They conveyed the information — that the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference was canceling the fall season and suspending all sports competition through Dec. 31 due to the coronavirus pandemic — to Bulldogs coaches a little after 9 a.m., and then those coaches had to quickly convey that information to their student-athletes.

At 10 a.m., the league sent out a release.

“People sensed this was coming, but I’ll tell you, until it’s real, it hits you in the face,” Berlo said Thursday. “Delivering the news this morning was one of the hardest things Karen and I have ever had to do in our careers. So while there was certainly a sense that cancellations and delays were coming, until they happen, you don’t feel the full weight and totality of them.”

UMD’s fall season was all but over when the NCAA Division II Presidents Council decided last week that Division II’s seven fall championships were canceled due to the “operational, logistical and financial challenges” presented by COVID-19. That, undoubtedly, referred to extensive testing measures and restrictions that would be required for a season to take place, among other things.

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UMD, in turn, announced Monday it was “pausing athletic activities” despite five successful weeks of athletes working out on campus.

You could see where this was going.

“It’s been a lot to take in, I’m not going to lie to you,” said UMD linebacker Nate Pearson, a senior from Lake Nebagamon. “You could see all the schools that began canceling the fall season in the summer, and it became inevitable, when you look at all the cases around St. Louis County, and all around America, but it doesn’t make it any easier.

“I tried to tell myself the odds of us having a season are not that high, but just the fact of having it 100% canceled is kind of devastating.”

The NCAA Division II Presidents Council deemed postponing fall championships to the spring is not feasible, but the NSIC is evaluating the possibility of spring competition even without NCAA championships.

“I think everybody was hoping for spring, and that’s certainly something that is still being looked at, though there wouldn’t be championships in any format,” Berlo said. “We’re focused on right now, and that is on having a meaningful and productive fall.”

Berlo said UMD will have training activities, such as practice and conditioning, for athletes this fall. The Bulldogs are also trying to find ways to honor their seniors, who now have the difficult decision to make if they want to take another year of athletic eligibility or graduate and move on.

“This is certainly some very very tough news for everyone,” Berlo said.

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Fall will look different, no doubt about that. Football and fall is about Americana as it gets.

This will be the first year UMD hasn’t had football since World War II.

“Feel for our players and the rest of the players in the NSIC and across the country,” UMD offensive coordinator Chase Vogler tweeted. “Now it’s time to continue to prepare for whenever we get to step back on the field. Back to work.”

While all of the Bulldogs fall sports are successful, UMD volleyball and football have consistently competed at a national level.

UMD volleyball has reached the national tournament 17 of the last 18 seasons and 22 times overall. UMD football has made 11 NCAA tournament appearances, including nine since 2008 and national championships in 2008 and 2010.

While Pearson said he just wants to play, it doesn’t matter when, he said the quest for a national championship is at the heart of every Bulldogs’ season.

“We play for a ring, and no championships in the spring, either?” he said. “That’s just heartbreaking, but the best thing you can do right now is have a positive mindset.”

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Pearson, a former Northwestern High School standout, was undecided on what he was going to do, saying “a lot of conversations are still to be had.”

Pearson and senior quarterback John Larson are among the UMD football players who have received NFL interest. Scouts wanted to come work them out in the spring, but they weren’t able to due to the pandemic.

For small-college players, they need every opportunity to prove their mettle and show they belong.

“With everything going on, it just puts that much more of a challenge on it,” Pearson said.

But ultimately for Pearson, that isn’t what he has misses the most.

“I’ve been looking forward to ... anything,” he said. “Lifting with the team this summer, this fall, I think just being part of the team was the part you love the most.”

Jon Nowacki joined the News Tribune in August 1998 as a sports reporter. He grew up in Stephen, Minnesota, in the northwest corner of the state, where he was actively involved in school and sports and was a proud member of the Tigers’ 1992 state championship nine-man football team.

After graduating in 1993, Nowacki majored in print journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, serving as editor of the college paper, “The Aquin,” and graduating with honors in December 1997. He worked with the Associated Press during the “tobacco trial” of 1998, leading to the industry’s historic $206 billion settlement, before moving to Duluth.

Nowacki started as a prep reporter for the News Tribune before moving onto the college ranks, with an emphasis on Minnesota Duluth football, including coverage of the Bulldogs’ NCAA Division II championships in 2008 and 2010.

Nowacki continues to focus on college sports while filling in as a backup on preps, especially at tournament time. He covers the Duluth Huskies baseball team and auto racing in the summer. When time allows, he also writes an offbeat and lighthearted food column entitled “The Taco Stand,” a reference to the “Taco Jon” nickname given to him by his older brother when he was a teenager that stuck with him through college. He has a teenage daughter, Emma.

Nowacki can be reached at jnowacki@duluthnews.com or (218) 380-7027. Follow him on Twitter @TacoJon1.
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