TROY — The decision didn’t officially come until Tuesday morning, but RPI football coach Ralph Isernia wasn’t surprised when the university released its plan for a return to on-campus activities this fall and competition for the Engineers’ fall sports programs were not a part of the blueprint.
RPI was the first local college to cancel its fall sports season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but Isernia can see that move as a harbinger of things to come for other programs.
“Until you can safely bring groups together,” Isernia said, “you’re probably going to see this at a lot of other schools.”
With the Capital Region set to enter Phase 4 of reopening from the coronavirus-related shutdowns Wednesday, higher education institutions had to submit their reopening plans to the state government.
RPI’s plan includes the freshmen and senior classes, as well as graduate students, being invited back to campus for the fall semester. The junior class will also return for in-person instruction in the fall, while the sophomore class will continue with remote instruction through the fall semester and return to campus in spring 2021.
Athletic director Lee McElroy said that competing in intercollegiate athletics this fall simply didn’t make logistical sense.
Among the biggest concerns was the potential spread of the virus caused by athletes and staff traveling between campuses for competition.
“In putting the plan together, we looked at all the various options and all the data that went into it, and arrived at our decision,” McElroy said. “We’re talking about not only the safety of our athletes and our coaches, but if we’re out on the road and we run into somebody that’s got a confirmed case of COVID, they’ve got to come back, go to school, live in the dorm, they’re involved in the library and on and on. You’re putting at risk much more than just the staff or your athletes. There are other things and other factors that are involved and that entered a lot into our decision.”
Isernia comes from a family that is full of front-line workers and stressed the importance of keeping this decision in perspective. His older brother is a doctor, he has another brother and two sisters-in-law that are nurses and numerous other family members are police officers and firefighters.
“A lot of our lives have been inconvenienced by this,” Isernia said. “Now we’re working from home, we’ve got the kids all at home, they’re using the WiFi and things start to slow down and you get glitches. But, for the most part, you’re doing OK. There are people that have been devastated. There are families that have been devastated by this. I’m fortunate that it’s not mine, but I’ve got a family of doctors, nurses, police officers, firefighters in my direct families that are on the front lines and facing this every single day.”
The cancellation of the fall season affects men’s and women’s cross country, field hockey, football, golf, men’s and women’s soccer and men’s and women’s tennis.
“We were all a little bit shocked by the news,” RPI women’s soccer coach Bre Nasypany-Cicero said. “I think we were all still hopeful, up until this morning, that we would still have some sort of play this season. . . . Once you think more about it, and putting the safety of the student-athletes first, it’s probably in the best interest not to have a season this year.”
RPI competes in the Liberty League for all sports except men’s and women’s hockey. The league, which also includes Union and Skidmore, has yet to make a decision on its fall season.
Liberty League commissioner Tracy King said the league held a conference call Tuesday, but no decisions were made.
“We're still looking at moving forward with the fall season,” King said. “Obviously, institutions are going to make decisions which they feel are in their best interests, and we respect any decision that's made. But for institutions that are planning on having a fall season, we are looking to have competition.”
“I think schools need to make decisions based on what's in their best interest.”
Union’s plan for a return to campus, also submitted Tuesday, states that, “No decisions have been made regarding athletics, club sports or intramurals. The College is awaiting guidance from state government as well as the respective leagues.”
Union football coach Jeff Behrman said Tuesday that he expected Union officials would wait for the Liberty League to make its decision, which he said was likely to happen around July 15.
The MAAC, which includes Siena, announced Monday that it was delaying the start of competition for its fall sports until Sept. 11.
No decision has been made beyond the fall season at RPI, including the men’s and women’s hockey teams, which compete at the Division I level in ECAC Hockey. RPI’s men’s hockey team was one of the first to have its season come to an end when the pandemic struck in mid-March.
Some of those issues, McElroy said, should be addressed at an upcoming meeting of ECAC programs.
“What that’s going to look like, I can’t speculate,” he said.
“We haven’t, at this point, made a determination about winter sports,” he added, “because I’ve got the staff really moving forward on this fall plan.”
Fall athletes on campus at RPI will be able to participate in individual and small group workouts, strength and conditioning training and both academic and personal support. All athletes, regardless of location, will be able to participate in athletic-related online meetings with coaches.
All rooms within athletic facilities will be available on a limited basis, with enhanced daily cleaning protocols in place.
“More than playing,” Nasypany-Cicero said, “they’re hopeful we’ll actually be able to be together. I think that’s what’s most important to our team, most important to the girls and to the coaching staff. We’re at least hopeful that we could still be on the field, potentially doing some team activities, even though we’re not competing.”
McElroy sympathized with the fall athletes who, like this year’s crop of spring athletes, will have a season taken away from them. He said he conducted a video conference with numerous parents Tuesday and outlined multiple options for athletes, including the possibility of transferring or sitting out a semester.
"There are several options there,” he said, “and while it’s agonizing, it’s not like the door is closed and the door’s shut.”
The move will doubtlessly be hardest on RPI’s seniors. Isernia said he’s been discussing this possibility with his seniors since the spring, asking them to put themselves in the shoes of the spring athletes who had their senior seasons taken away.
Isernia said he’s planning to meet with each of his seniors to discuss their options moving forward.
“When you’ve been coaching for as long as I have, you have guys that have had season- or career-ending injuries, unfortunately,” he said. “You’ve had that, but that’s a situation where someone’s leaving it on the field. This is a situation that’s out of their control. This is something that, four years ago, you couldn’t have seen coming that’s going to affect your senior year. Everyone’s got an individual decision to make.”
With Tuesday’s decision, RPI joined a list of schools including Williams and Bowdoin that are opting not to hold athletic competition this fall.
Until a viable treatment or vaccine is available, Isernia said, it’s a move he expects to be echoed elsewhere.
And football, especially, will prove complicated to return to.
“I know [Baltimore Ravens coach] John Harbaugh came out and said that with these restrictions that we have, it’s going to be tough to play,” Isernia said. “You can’t social distance and play football, or win at football. That’s certainly not going to happen.”
Staff writer Mike MacAdam contributed to this report.