-- Cat Griz 2019 (copy)

Montana State running back Isaiah Ifanse runs through the middle of Montana’s defense in 2019 at Bobcat Stadium.

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SPOKANE, Washington — Tom Wistrcill beamed during his State of the Conference address Monday morning at the Davenport Grand.

The Big Sky commissioner spoke to a room full of media and conference football players, coaches and staffers on the final day of the Big Sky Football Kickoff. The annual event was canceled last year because of the coronavirus pandemic, and the 2020 football season was moved to this past spring. Montana State, Northern Colorado and Portland State chose to opt out of the season, and the 10 teams that did compete played shorter schedules than usual.

Big Sky teams are slated to begin their seasons in late August or early September, just like they did in pre-pandemic years. The Big Sky Kickoff was held in person, with no mask or social distancing requirements. Veteran coaches remarked this week’s event felt similar to previous editions.

“Really proud of our conference getting to this point. This is kind of the tipping point. Right now, it’s real,” Wistrcill told media shortly after his address. “To feel like we’re entering what we consider to be a normal football season is really exciting.”

The vast majority of people at the address and subsequent media availability did not wear masks, but some did. The first eight minutes of Wistrcill’s media session were dominated by questions about COVID-19: testing, vaccines, outbreaks, etc. The commissioner’s jolly tone at the beginning of his address quickly turned serious as he reminded everyone the 2021-22 Big Sky season could still be derailed.

“It is good to be in person, good to be around people. Obviously, we’re not complete idiots. We know that a pandemic is still going on,” Montana State offensive lineman Lewis Kidd said. “With vaccination rates continuing to rise and as we continue to push that, I think with our level of knowledge of the pandemic and how we need to do things has gone up.

“Last year, I feel like everyone was kind of guessing. Now, I feel like we’ve got a good game plan.”

The Big Sky is still weeks from announcing specific COVID protocols, Wistrcill said, but he provided some clarity Monday.

Because the conference football schedule is compact, makeup games and “no contests” are out of the question, he said. If a Big Sky team incurs a COVID outbreak and can’t field enough players for a game, the team will forfeit.

Avoiding COVID positive tests will mostly require teams to be heavily vaccinated, not only because vaccines reduce the odds of getting infected but also because vaccinated players will likely be exempt from testing.

The Big Sky is requiring referees to get vaccinated, and some have quit because of the mandate, Wistrcill said. The conference will not require vaccines for any of its member schools, however (officials are employed by the Big Sky; school staffers and athletes are not).

The Big Sky is discussing specific COVID testing plans with its health and safety committee, Wistrcill said. But he strongly encouraged vaccinations. If both opponents deal with outbreaks on gameday, “We’ll have to deal with that when we get there,” Wistrcill said. “Please, I hope that doesn’t happen.”

Big Sky schools aren’t required to report vaccination numbers to the conference, Wistrcill said. But enough have volunteered that information for him to estimate less than half of the conference’s football players have been vaccinated, with the highest team vaccination rate around 90% and the lowest below 30%. The conference’s goal is a vaccination rate of 80-85%, Wistrcill said, based on guidance from the NCAA and medical experts. A team with that many fully immunized players should be able to field a big enough roster to play a game even if every unvaccinated player tests positive.

“We need to increase our vaccination rates,” Wistrcill said. “If I’m in a locker room, I want to play football. I want to encourage my teammates to get vaccinated so that we can play. It’s too late if we enter October and we’re below that (80-85%) number and we have a breakout. ‘Oh yeah, we should have gotten vaccinated.’ Well, now’s the time where we need to address that, as we enter August here, so hopefully we can protect the season.”

The Big Sky’s vaccine incentives are softer than but similar to the NFL’s recently announced protocols, which threaten forfeits and teams paying opponents’ expenses if the league discovers that an unvaccinated player or staffer causes a game-suspending COVID outbreak.

“Until we met formally this weekend, there was really no outline of how that was going to look,” Montana State head coach Brent Vigen said. “The NCAA has waited until this, and they really haven’t come up with anything concrete. But as a conference, at least we have a sense of direction, and we can make our own statement to our athletes now where it’s not just projection. It’s ‘Here’s the way this is going to look this fall, and you guys still have the choice (to get vaccinated), but at least it’s a choice made with some greater parameters in mind.’”

Vaccination rates differ between teams, in part, because of the states where they reside. Sacramento State head coach Troy Taylor said his team is close to 100% vaccinated because the California State University system is requiring vaccines for its faculty, staff and students (University of California schools, which includes UC Davis, are under the same mandate).

Beau Baldwin, the head coach at CSU school Cal Poly, said he doesn’t judge people who have varying views on the vaccine, but he has gotten the shot.

“No matter what my view is on it, I got it. I needed to get it, in my mind,” said Baldwin, who coached Eastern Washington from 2008 to 2016. “I think a lot of the players will say, ‘We may all have the same opinion on this, or they may be different, (but) let’s get together and get this done.’”

The incentives for a vaccination rate over 80% aren’t limited to protecting team members and people in the community. The difference between that percentage and a lower one could be the difference between a win and a forfeit. No team wants to lose a game without even stepping on the field.

Like the United States, the Big Sky is in a better place than it was last year. But COVID, specifically the Delta variant, continues to delay a return to normal. It’s hard to tell when that day will arrive.

“If we’re at 30 or 40% of our team and staff vaccinated, no, it won’t be a normal season. But if we’re all of the sudden at 85-90%, yeah, I think we have a great opportunity,” Baldwin said. “I’ve also learned in the last year and a half not to assume anything or predict anything, especially where we live. Just taking it day by day and doing everything we can.”

Parker Cotton can be reached at pcotton@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2670. Follow him on Twitter @ByParkerCotton.

This article originally ran on bozemandailychronicle.com.

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