Back in the fall, UB women’s soccer coach Shawn Burke served on a Mid-American Conference committee that had a daunting task: Plan for potential scheduling disruptions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There’s no right or wrong way how to figure out teams without the same amount of games,” Burke said at the time. “There’s a good chance that a team is going to get screwed.”
Little did he know. Burke’s team, one of the finest in school history, would be the one getting damaged by the league’s COVID contingencies.
The Bulls finished the season 6-1-1 in the MAC East. There were no non-conference games during the pandemic. They had the most wins in the division. They currently rank 40th in the national power rankings (RPI), the best in the league. They beat Bowling Green (49th) during the season.
But it’s Bowling Green that will play Ball State for the MAC championship next weekend. In keeping with protocols, BG finished with the best winning percentage in the East, .833 vs. .813. Despite playing only six games and being on pause from March 29-April 11, they’re in the title game.
UB is out in the cold. Last year, the MAC decided to eliminate the conference tournament in women’s soccer to save money. So unlike the basketball programs, they can’t make a run through an expanded MAC tourney. Either you win your division or you’re out of luck.
The situation was made even tougher by the fact that UB was not allowed to make up a game that had been scheduled for April 4 at Bowling Green, due to BG going into a two-week COVID pause.
“The committee asked how do you get as many games in as possible, and how do we not punish teams for COVID outbreaks,” Burke said Monday. “We have the opposite.”
It’s UB that is being punished for another school’s outbreak. Burke said he doesn’t fault Bowling Green. They played the minimum six games and adhered to their county’s COVID rules. But they were essentially rewarded for their coronavirus outbreak by not having to face UB again.
Not surprisingly, the Bulls are outraged. On Sunday night, during the bus ride home from a 1-0 win at Ohio, senior Marcy Barberic and the entire UB squad released a statement saying they were “extremely frustrated and disheartened … we have earned the right to play.”
They believe they should be allowed to play that makeup game with BG. But the MAC decided not to allow any makeup games after the end of the regular season on April 11 (Sunday).
“Basically, we have this whole week,” said Barberic, a Grand Island native who is fourth in the nation in goals scored per game. “Bowling Green is cleared from their Covid protocols today. The MAC is just not allowing the flexibility to make that game up when we deserve the opportunity to prove we can beat them again and win that MAC championship.”
The question is, why couldn’t there be makeup games this week? The schedule is wide open until Saturday. The NCAA selection committee doesn’t select the field until next Monday. Yes, there were many postponements, which would have to be played in order based on the agreement last fall. But why not play the ones that matter most?
“We could go to BG and they could win,” Burke said. “Fair enough. As athletes, you can live with that. What’s hard to live with is that you don’t even have an opportunity. We knew things would be crazy with this Covid year, but we have an opportunity to let the players decide who will represent the East.”
There was no stipulation for makeup games after the regular season. If the MAC had required BG to make up games, it would have started with a lost contest against Akron, since the policy called for lost games to be made up in the order they were scheduled.
Here’s what makes it even tougher to stomach: The lack of makeup games this week might have been the result of a simple typo, an error in the league’s transcript of the bylaws. Burke said there was an agreement to leave April 14-15 open for makeups. But the bylaws stipulated April 7-11 for the last round of makeup games.
“Maybe men’s soccer agreed to April 7,” Burke said. “But there’s no possible way it would have been April 8 for women’s, because every team had a game scheduled for April 8 and we never play back to back.”
Burke said the league could have mistakenly put the women’s makeup dates with the men’s, or they could have typed the wrong dates. Maybe they changed their minds. In any case, UB got the short end.
“It’s mind-blowing,” Burke said. “We talk about fluidity and how things change during COVID and the need to be flexible. We had that opportunity and there was zero flexibility.”
Jeremy Guy, the MAC’s assistant commissioner, explained the league’s decision on Tuesday in a point-by-point review, saying Bowling Green met all the championship parameters agreed upon by league members last fall.
Guy said the policy for both men’s and women’s soccer provided for only an April 7 makeup date. The review said “only the men chose to design their schedule with this date left open in the middle of the season.”
He said it was not a typo, as the UB team suggested.
Mark Alnutt, the director of athletics at UB, expressed his disappointment in a statement released Monday afternoon, saying the players had sacrificed so much during the pandemic and “deserved a better fate than the one decided for them.”
“In a time when we should be most flexible in the interests and experiences of student athletes, this decision was a collective miss on the part of coaches, administrators and the Mid-American Conference,” Alnutt said, “and warrants further discussion on the existing structure of MAC championships for all sports.”
Barberic, who intends to take advantage of the NCAA rule allowing athletes an extra season of eligibility due to COVID, said the problem could have been avoided if the MAC hadn’t killed the conference tournament. She said they should reconsider that decision.
“Why can’t we have our conference tournament and let the players decide who wins the MAC?” Barbaric said. “It shouldn’t be decided by coaches in a room. The players should decide.”
During the recent NCAA women’s basketball tournament, the disparity in resources between the men and women became a major issue. Even in women’s basketball, a TV draw and revenue-producing enterprise, the women are made to feel like second-class citizens.
“It’s hard not to think that at times,” said Burke, whose team won the MAC in his first season as head coach in 2014. “That’s what I told my administrator. How do I tell my players they matter, and their college experience matters? It’s tough in this spot.”
There’s still the outside chance of an at-large NCAA berth. But the MAC hasn’t received an at-large bid since 2009. UB’s power rating actually dropped after Sunday’s win. They have little chance of getting in over the Power 5 schools without winning the MAC title.
“History is not on our side,” Burke said. “We’re historically a one-bid league. With no non-conference games, I don’t know how the RPI will work. We’re going to have a couple days off. We’ll train the rest of the week, have some fun and pray for a miracle on Selection Monday.”
Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.