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WALFISH: USA South Festival marred by women's tennis ending

WALFISH

Josh Walfish

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by Josh Walfish
Sports Writer

Sunday, April 17, 2016

The beauty of sports is that everything is supposed to be decided on the field.

No one except the players and coaches can determine who wins and who loses. And at the end of the day, the result is normally just and fair.

But that wasn’t the case this weekend.

Yes, six teams were crowned USA South champions at the conference’s annual spring sports extravaganza here in Rocky Mount, but the biggest champion was one team that didn’t get the official title.

Covenant’s women’s tennis squad battled N.C. Wesleyan in a semifinals match Saturday that came down to the wire. The Scots won, 6-3, and theoretically advanced to the USA South championship match.

Except the match was scheduled to be played Sunday, and Covenant College doesn’t play on Sundays due to religious beliefs.

So a mere 15 minutes after gutting out a win over the Battling Bishops, the Covenant tennis team huddled on one of the courts and watched as Methodist raised the trophy. The Scots didn’t have a chance to compete for the title, they simply had to watch another team win via forfeit.

As heart-wrenching as it must have been to sit there and watch another team celebrate, the Scots didn’t look angry or sad. They applauded the champions, celebrated their two All-Tournament honorees and then packed up the bus back to Georgia. It was a lesson in true sportsmanship for everyone in attendance.

But if we’re perfectly honest, the whole situation is a travesty because it was completely preventable.

USA South could have scheduled all the tournaments to end on a Saturday, like it does in the fall and winter. It could have been prepared to make a special exemption if Covenant needed to play on a Sunday – either use the lights to play Saturday night after the men’s semifinals or postpone it until Monday.

Instead the presidents of the 12 other members of the conference have repeatedly decided against adopting Covenant’s requests. The school has filed proposals with the league since joining the conference in 2013 to receive some accommodations, but Saturday was the first time there had ever been any conflicts.

Perhaps the most absurd part about this whole ordeal is the NCAA, an organization rift with ineptitude on so many levels, has a religious exemption program in place for these types of situations. It’s seen most commonly with BYU in Division I, but Covenant also submitted paperwork so that this situation could never happen in a national championship tournament. Individual conferences, however, do not need to follow the same guidelines.

USA South associate commissioner Mike Christie told the Telegram that the conference’s policy dictates that the match be played on Sunday. It is the same message that the conference re-iterated to Covenant when it broached the subject ahead of this year’s tournaments.

Many people – including N.C. Wesleyan coach Dustin Hale, who said he was disappointed for his girls – questioned why Covenant even bothered to show up and compete this weekend if it couldn’t win any titles.

“It still is a great experience to play in a conference championship,” Covenant athletics director Kyle Taylor told the Telegram in a telephone interview Saturday night. “Through the conference regular season, they earned a right to be a part of it. One thing I like about this conference is that not every team qualifies for the conference tournament. We’re full members of the conference, if our teams qualify, we’re going to send them to play.”

Taylor added he is hopeful this situation will force the conference to act, but also admitted Covenant knew what it signed up for when the school made the move to Division III and joined the conference.

Although that is true, the USA South also knew it was taking in a member institution that doesn’t play on Sundays and needed to find ways to accommodate those concerns. It does a wonderful job during the regular season at finding alternatives, why not for the most important matches of all?

But like so many issues regarding college athletics, this one ultimately requires the NCAA to legislate. If the governing body of all of these conference grants a school a religious exemption, the conferences themselves should have to follow suit.

What is even more unfair for Covenant is that for most sports you need to win your conference tournament to automatically qualify for the NCAA Tournament. So in Covenant’s situation, it must now hope the NCAA grants them one of the few precious at-large bids.

Since we all know the NCAA won’t act on this quickly – you know what I mean, Tar Heels fans – it is up to the USA South presidents to ensure that every school has an equal chance of winning the conference championship.

Even if it is simply building in a contingency plan for Covenant, let’s make sure trophies are won on the field and not decided by a school’s religious beliefs.

Sports writer Josh Walfish can be reached at 407-9952 or jwalfish@rmtelegram.com

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