The NJCAA, in concert with the NCAA and NAIA, released an update to spring sports eligibility last week confirming that no spring sports athlete would be charged a year of participation. College athletics, along with virtually all sports across the country, were canceled or suspended this spring in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

For the NJCAA, it also ruled that for the 2020-21 season, second-season sophomores that elect to return next year will not count towards roster limits.

While schools will not be granted an increase in allowable number of Letters of Intent, sophomores will essentially be allowed to return with no impact. For Labette, which competes in baseball and softball in the spring, its scholarship limit for the two spring sports will remain at 24.

Labette baseball coach Alex Coplon said the ruling will play well for his program.

“It’s going to work out well for us,” Coplon said. “We’ll have two sophomores returning as non-counters, so we won’t have to have any difficult conversations. Anybody that wants to come back can. All the recruits that are signed are still coming and now they still can.” 

Labette softball head coach Ryan Phillips, who had nine sophomores on his roster this spring before the NJCAA canceled the season, said he felt having sophomores be non-counters was the best course of action.

“That’s the best option for everybody,” Phillips said. “You’ll have some teams that if you put a limit or count on it, you’ll have some teams return every player plus their freshmen and recruiting class. Some schools would have to pick and choose. This helped everybody.” 

While last week’s action by the NJCAA affirms that every student-athlete will get an opportunity to return to their sport after having a season ripped from them by a global pandemic, a litany of other issues will arise.

For starters, spring sports rosters next season will have two classes of freshmen counting against scholarship limits. 

Labette softball had eight freshmen this spring and has 16 signed recruits on its incoming class, which reaches the limit of 24. If all 24 of those players return in 2022, the NJCAA would have to increase the number of allowable Letters of Intent to account for the following recruiting class.

“I think we’ll be handicapped recruiting-wise,” Phillips said. “Bigger schools can recruit two-to-three years out. But there’s plenty of kids that may go unseen. Everybody is going to have to adjust. There’s a lot of ifs that will have to be looked upon.” 

Coplon also spoke to the potential issue of being restricted in recruiting next year.

“I’ve got a list of all of our scholarships and every single one will be classified as a freshman,” Coplon said. “If all of those guys come back in 2022, you might not be able to sign anybody. The most important thing will be to have conversations with each individual player when they get enrolled. We’ll see where they’re at. If they’re on track to graduate and getting interest from NCAA schools, we’re not going to make guys stay here for three years.” 

Phillips hopes natural attrition and further NJCAA action can alleviate concerns about potential recruiting restrictions.

“There’s always a few that don’t come back,” Phillips said, “because of stuff like playing time or they’re close to graduating or whatever. Obviously there’s plenty for everybody to consider.” 

There is also confusion regarding sophomore student-athletes that both Phillips and Coplon said they’re seeking clarity — will sophomores that were signed or committed to the NCAA level that move on to the four-year level next spring be sophomores or junior athletically?

The anecdotal example of this scenario at Labette surrounds softball catcher Audrey Miller. A sophomore signed to Pittsburg State, Miller would be a sophomore athletically if she returned to Labette. But Phillips and Miller have not been given guidance as to whether or not she would be a sophomore or junior if she plays at Pittsburg State next spring. Miller is the only softball or baseball player at Labette committed to a four-year school. 

“Academically, if I had three more years, that would help if I want to try and get a master’s,” Miller said. “That’s something I’m interested in especially if I want to coach.”

The Sun reached out to the NJCAA, the NCAA and Pittsburg State University seeking clarity on the issue. The NJCAA told the Sun to ask the NCAA, as did Pittsburg State. The NCAA has yet to respond.

“There’s still several questions,” Phillips said. “It’s still in the works as far as academic eligibility. We’ve got so many other issues for our players to consider.” 

Last week’s release from the NJCAA was the first step in drawing a roadmap for spring sports programs as they reel from the cancellation of their seasons.

“I know they have another board meeting in a few weeks,” Coplon said. “They’ll be discussing things above my pay grade and knowledge. They’ll nail it down. Institutionally at Labette, we’ll do what’s best for each kid academically.”

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