High school students, college programs both feel the effects of extra year of eligibility for college athletes
College athletic programs across all levels have been granted the option of offering an extra year of eligibility for athletes due to canceled seasons in the pandemic. While it was met as the right thing to do for those athletes, it has had a trickle-down effect for high school athletes and college programs.
Osakis football coach Bill Infanger looks at Isaac Hetland and sees the kind of player who would fit in well on a Division II football team.
Hetland (FB/LB) has the build of a college linebacker at 6-foot, 1-inch and 215 pounds. He played both ways for the Silverstreaks during his career and finished with 798 rushing yards, 15 total touchdowns and 7 two-point conversions in just five games this season. That’s after piling up 14 touchdowns and 901 yards on 161 carries as a junior.
Hetland has a 3.8 GPA after earning college credits through Alexandria Technical and Community College for two years now. He will graduate high school with an associate of applied science degree and as a certified personal trainer.
Athletically, academically and character-wise, Infanger said he fits the mold of what every coach wants in one of their best players.
“He works as hard as anybody we’ve ever had in our program,” Infanger said. “He has a ridiculous work ethic in the weight room. He shows up every day in practice and is a leader. He’s a great young man and any college would be lucky to get him.”
In a normal year, Hetland might know what his future holds in football. But this isn’t a normal year, and the effects of the pandemic are being felt for some high school athletes like Hetland who have visions of playing collegiately at the highest level possible.
“Right now, I’m just having to wait,” Hetland said. “My coach has sent out some emails to the colleges that I’m interested in like (North Dakota State University) and (Minnesota State University-Mankato) and some other colleges. I just heard back from Mankato and basically all of their seniors are returning, so they’re down nine to 10 spots that they usually would have open. So I can’t even walk on there because their roster spots are filled.”
The impact of an extra year of eligibility
Colleges at all division levels have been granted the opportunity to offer an extra year of eligibility for many of their athletes due to the COVID-19 pandemic canceling seasons.
The Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference is the prominent D-II conference around Minnesota. It features 16 programs, including many within easy driving distance of the Alexandria area for recruiting like Mankato, Minnesota State University-Moorhead and St. Cloud State University. In August of this year, the NSIC canceled fall competition and championships in 2020. All sports competition was suspended through Dec. 31.
The additional year of eligibility allowed by the NCAA means a lot of NSIC seniors who lost out on this season can return for another year if they choose to. While that is good news for the kids currently in the program, the decision did come with a trickle-down effect.
Division II teams are not allotted more athletic scholarships to give out this year. Financially, adding additional scholarships is a burden that most programs could never take on.
“There was some talk about not counting the seniors’ scholarships who are coming back,” Minnesota State University-Moorhead football coach Steve Laqua said. “In Division II, that challenge is ‘OK, great, but how are we going to raise all that extra money?’ It fits with the general idea of Division II is life and the balance of athletics and academics. Most of the athletes here, they’re not on full scholarships. They’re paying the majority of their way to go to school, so a lot of times financially it doesn’t make sense to stay in school for a super long time either.”
Division II also adjusted its transfer model in 2020, allowing athletes to explore transfer opportunities without seeking permission from their current school. The end result of all of this has been a lot more competition for scholarships and roster spots that teams have available.
“College kids getting extra years of eligibility, transfer portal being opened, this (2021) class is going to have a tough go of it,” Alexandria football coach Mike Empting said. “I have talked with a couple of college coaches who have said it is just going to be harder to have scholarships available. There are going to be some kids that may have been on the fringe of being offered that will lose that opportunity this year.”
The additional year of eligibility granted in college athletics has its challenges for college coaches too. Laqua said his team is going to do right by its seniors. They have been through the battles with the Dragons, but bringing kids back for another year creates a trickle-down effect that coaches need to consider for years to come.
“In essence, we dammed up the river, right? Normally seniors flow downstream, and it’s the next group in. Now we kind of backed things up,” Laqua said. “The challenge obviously is less roster spots and less scholarships available in recruiting. This is not just a one-year issue. Next year, guys who technically would be juniors may be coming to us telling us, ‘Hey, I’m going to treat this as my senior year because I’m graduating.’ We’re really talking about almost three years after this this is still happening. It’s really trying to talk right now to guys who would be juniors and say, ‘Hey, do you see yourself as a senior next year?’”
‘I would want the same thing for me’
Alexandria senior running back Nolan Morical is one of Empting’s players who is feeling the impact of these changes.
He was hearing from both Division II and Division III schools after a junior season where he ran for 1,514 yards and 20 touchdowns in 2019. As college coaching staffs figure out how to balance their rosters, Morical is someone who is still figuring out exactly what his future in the sport might look like and what options he has.
“I’m still most likely planning on playing football in college,” he said. “I guess it’s a little frustrating you could say, but if I was a senior in college, I would want the same thing for me if I was playing. I’m not really truly mad about it.”
Like Hetland for Osakis, Morical fits the part of what coaches want in a player. He played through an ankle injury this past season and finished with 589 yards and nine touchdowns on 103 carries, good for a 5.72-yards-per-carry average.
“I think under normal circumstances, Nolan would have gotten more interest at the D-II level,” Empting said. “He has great speed. He is versatile in terms of being able to run the ball inside and outside and has been a very good pass receiver for us out of the backfield. He could be a returner as well, and he is good in pass protection...Nolan also has the ‘I always want to improve’ mentality. He will make any program he joins a better program, and has the athletic ability and mindset to play football at the D-II level.”
Morical is the Cardinals’ all-time leading rusher, leaving with 2,817 career yards. He is currently uncommitted, but said he is leaning strongly toward Division III Concordia College in Moorhead in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.
“They have a really good elementary education program at their school,” Morical said. “That’s what I’d like to do as a profession. Then they have a good tradition of football too.”
Finding an opportunity
Hetland finds himself in a similar situation as Morical of being a senior and wanting to make a decision on his future soon.
Many high school athletes rely on the summer period to show college coaches what they can do at camps. Hetland was only able to attend one of those camps this past summer due to COVID restrictions. That was at Mankato, and he felt he made a good impression.
“Their head coach pulled me aside and said, ‘Hey, let us see film from your first few games and we’ll get you an offer from there.’” Hetland said. “Then they weren’t able to have a season this fall and they basically stopped talking to me...It’s tough not getting offers because my coach says he sees me being good enough. I think I’m good enough where I should be getting offers from that D-II level. I’m not even getting walk-on opportunities.”
Walking on would allow him a foot in the door to a program, where he could then try to impress coaches and earn a future scholarship opportunity. Right now, Hetland is waiting to hear back from other schools about those walk-on chances, but he is also leaning toward finding a Division III school that fits what he’s looking for.
Division III programs cannot offer athletic scholarships like Division II and Division I institutions. But that is only one piece of the financial package. Some athletes might receive more financial aid by going the Division III route than accepting a partial athletic scholarship at a higher level.
Hetland has worked hard in the weight room and on the field with playing football at the college level in mind since he was a young kid. This is not the path he thought he would be on this late in his senior year, but he’s committed to seeing this through.
Wherever he ends up, he’s confident that the hard work he put in will eventually pay off.
“I’m going to love college football. No matter where I end up, I’m going to make the most of it,” Hetland said. “It’s a little disappointing that I don’t get to go where my mindset was at as far as colleges, but I’m still excited. Great football is great football at any level.”