Following the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin’s unanimous vote to postpone all fall competition on July 27th, McNally’s comeback season would have to wait.
“I want to end my career how I want to end it, not through an ACL tear or because of COVID-19,” said McNally.
But McNally and other seniors now have a new option. In March, the Division III Administrative Committee of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), announced an eligibility extension for all student-athletes impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Student-athletes are permitted an additional year of competition if their sport completed 50 percent or less of the 2020-21 season. All Division III athletes are allotted four competitive seasons, but the new rule gives athletes the opportunity to return for an additional season, as long as their four years of eligibility are completed within 10 semesters.
“[Getting to play an extra season] is a little bit of redemption,” McNally said of her decision to take advantage of the NCAA’s extension and participate in a fifth year in the fall of 2021. “I’ve put a ton of work into my recovery, and I’d like to redeem those games that I missed out on. I want to show what I can do.”
Of the 503 student-athletes originally on rosters in July, 70 have either deferred enrollment or chosen to study remotely. The option of deferring enrollment is particularly useful for winter athletes, whose seasons traditionally take place between both the fall and spring semesters.
Cade Alioth, a senior captain on the basketball team, deferred enrollment for the fall semester and is working a full-time internship in Wheaton.
“I’ve worked pretty hard and I don’t want the pinnacle of whatever my sporting career is to go out on this note,” Alioth said in a phone interview. “So once the money and the credits made sense, and I realized I get to extend college a year, it was a no brainer.”
Although Alioth is not permitted to practice with his team as an unenrolled student, he will continue workouts on his own until he enrolls again in the spring semester and can join his team for practices.
“Although it might stink right now, next year it’s really going to pay off,” said Alioth.
On the other hand, Deborah Smith, senior volleyball captain, has decided not to return for an additional season due to the financial cost of spending another year at Wheaton. “It’s tough to think that I had that option,” said Smith. “I was in the mindset of being done this year and a lot of aspects went into my decision, but ultimately it didn’t make sense for me.”
Jake Hibben, who was a traditional senior last year, originally planned to take a fifth year this fall due to an injury that cost him his freshman season in 2016. Because of the postponement of fall sports, Hibben has decided to defer this fifth year until next fall and play football for Wheaton in 2021.
“At first there were just a lot of questions I didn’t have answers for, but now, it seems like I’ve almost reset back to a junior year kind of feeling,” said Hibben, one of 35 seniors expected to return to play for Wheaton football this fall. “I just have one more year to go, and it’s given me a chance to really prepare for football and prepare for applying to future jobs.”
Only needing one class to graduate, Hibben will be registered as a part-time student when he returns to play for the Thunder in the fall of 2021.
Potential incoming student-athletes have been quick to critique the NCAA’s decision, worried that the return of athletes and new freshmen will overflow team’s rosters, potentially leading to fewer playing opportunities for new players and difficulties in accommodating more athletes in the current facilities.
“If we have big rosters, that affects everything from the rosters to the locker rooms to the training room to our facilities,” said Associate Athletics Director and NCAA Compliance Coordinator Bill Stukes ‘85.
Despite the potential influx of athletes in future seasons, Stukes says he prefers this method rather than limiting the number of incoming athletes.
“Our feeling is if that creates a swell in roster numbers that’s okay. We don’t want to cut ourselves short in four years by limiting the number of freshmen coming in now,” said Stukes. “We want to be in a situation where when the dust settles in three or four years, we are as good as we were when we came into this.”
As Wheaton continues to recruit and bring in players to support expanding programs, athletes prepare for seasons with no start dates.
“The more everyone around Wheaton follows these rules, it gives our athletes more of a chance to have some semblance of a season in the future,” said Hibben in reference to preparing for football next fall.
While COVID-19 continues to postpone athletics, the new NCAA eligibility guidelines offer game changing decisions for student-athletes.
“After it felt like my last year was taken away, it was very relieving because I at least got to pick whether I wanted to stay or wanted to go. It gave us an option.” said McNally. “I’m very grateful to be able to make my own decision to play for Wheaton another year.”
Wheaton College, IL