The University of Maine baseball team gathers prior to a game in March at Missouri State University in Springfield. UMaine is allowing its senior athletes in spring sports to return for another year of eligibility if they wish. Credit: Courtesy of Matt Turer

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The University of Maine will follow NCAA recommendations and provide its 2020 spring sports athletes another year of eligibility to make up for this year’s lost season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

While the seniors may return for an extra year, Black Bear coaches must operate with the same amount of scholarship money budgeted for 2020-2021. UMaine coaches believe allowing the athletes to come back is the right decision, but there is concern about how that might affect individual programs.

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The NCAA Division I Council voted last month to allow schools to carry more scholarship players than normally permitted to account for the 2020 seniors, other returning players and incoming freshmen.

“I am pleased that the NCAA did the right thing and allowed all spring-sports seniors another year of eligibility,” UMaine athletics director Ken Ralph said.

Under the decision, schools may use the NCAA Student Assistance Fund to pay for scholarships for senior students who want to take advantage of the additional eligibility next year. However, Ralph said at UMaine coaches must operate within their existing scholarship budgets.

“There will not be any new money available but if coaches have uncommitted funds, they can use them to support these athletes,” Ralph said.

That means some returning seniors or other student-athletes potentially could receive less scholarship money.

UMaine softball coach Mike Coutts said the NCAA’s vote to allow seniors to return is fair to the seniors, but might force coaches to make difficult decisions.

“I’m glad the kids can do that but it is going to create a lot of problems for a lot of different people,” Coutts said. “I feel that the NCAA dumped this in the laps of the coaches and the schools.”

Even though Coutts does not have any seniors on this year’s softball roster, he said having carryover senior players on the roster might have a negative impact on recruiting for some programs.

For example, a coach may have told an incoming recruit she was expected to compete for a starting position based on the planned departure of a senior, but that scenario would change if the senior is still on the squad.

“You could end up losing [recruits] to other places,” Coutts said.

Coutts said expanding the rosters could also pose problems for smaller Division I schools that would have to conduct practices with more players despite a limited number of assistant coaches.

Baseball coach Nick Derba supports the NCAA recommendation and UMaine’s decision to welcome seniors back. The Black Bears have six seniors, at least two of whom hope to return.

“The door isn’t closed on the seniors. They have the opportunity [to play another year],” he said.

Since teams under the new scenario may carry more scholarship players, schools aren’t required to offer the same amount of athletics aid for those seniors next year.

Division I baseball programs are allowed the equivalent of 11.7 athletic scholarships and softball may utilize 12 equivalencies. Scholarship athletes must receive at least 25 percent of a full scholarship.

“They won’t have room for all of them. There’s a good chance a lot of players aren’t going to be getting scholarships,” Derba said.

UMaine also awards some limited scholarship money to its track and field athletes.

Derba hopes two seniors, All-America East outfielder Hernen Sardinas and pitcher Trevor DeLaite of Bangor, UMaine’s No. 1 starter this season, will return next season. Their plans could be impacted by the pro draft.

“If they don’t come back, we’re going to have to find replacements for them,” Derba said. “[Ralph] did the right thing by us [coaches] and the spring sports [athletes].”

Derba said he always keeps some uncommitted scholarship money on hand to make sure a non-scholarship player who contributes still has the ability to earn some.

“It isn’t going to impact our recruiting,” he said.

Seniors who have graduated also have the option of transferring to another school for next year.

“Our job description changes every day. This is part of the job for this year,” Derba said. “You’ve got to do it. You’ve got to make your program the best that it can be.”

Some schools are not following the NCAA’s recommendation.

University of Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez recently announced that its spring sports seniors will not be allowed to return next fall.

Louisiana Tech is allowing senior scholarship athletes in baseball and softball to return under their current agreements, but the futures of senior athletes in its other four sports— men’s and women’s track and field, men’s golf and women’s tennis — will be determined by their respective coaches.

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