Restarting most Minnnesota college sports tied to COVID testing dilemma

MANKATO – Hockey practice at Minnesota State Mankato starts after lunch, but first, coach Mike Hastings and senior goalie Ryan Edquist need to make a quick trip across town.

Heavy snowfall creates a snow globe as the pair climb into Hastings’ SUV for a nine-minute drive to a Mayo Clinic Health System facility located in a commercial complex that also houses a post office and brew pub.

They arrive just before 1 p.m. Within minutes they are back on their way to campus after undergoing a test for the COVID-19 virus.

This process — conducted at a higher frequency — will determine when the bulk of Minnesota college sports teams will be able to resume competition.

COVID testing remains the fulcrum of return-to-play efforts for thousands of athletes at the 22 Minnesota colleges and universities in the Division II Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference and Division III Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. For each school that balance includes the challenge of how to fund testing expense reaching six figures with budgets already strained by the pandemic.

Tuesday has the markings of a pivotal day for those leagues and all collegiate sports.

A meeting of the NCAA’s Board of Governor is expected to possibly act on recommendations proposed in late September suggesting all athletes be tested three times per week during the season. The recommendations were specific to basketball, but realistically, they apply to all winter sports.

That frequency — three times weekly — felt like a gut punch to schools in conferences that lack the money of Power Five goliaths such as the Big Ten, which provides daily antigen testing to its teams.

“That certainly got the attention of athletic directors at our level because most of us are still trying to figure out how we’re going to do one-time-a-week testing in terms of how to execute it and how to afford it,” said Kevin Buisman, Mankato athletic director.

NSIC Commissioner Erin Lind called it “a curveball.”

Officials across all NCAA divisions are waiting to see if the organization keeps those recommendations as just that — recommendations — or if they mandate that teams test three times per week.

Either option creates a dilemma.

If it is required, schools must figure out how to get access to thousands of tests. And then how to pay for them with budgets already stretched thin by significant revenue loss from the pandemic.

If testing remains recommendations, each league will be left to decide its own standards, knowing the NCAA’s Sport Science Institute recommends testing three times.

“When it’s guidelines, think about that conversation that has to happen at every league level,” Lind said. “What type of risk are we willing to take on?”

Both the NSIC and MIAC suspended competition until Jan. 1. MSU Mankato’s men’s and women’s hockey teams play Division I so they compete at a higher level in different conferences. The Mavericks are hopeful to begin play in mid-November with testing three times per week.

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