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Don Owen: As college sports resume around the nation, NKU harriers patiently wait out pandemic

For the second time in his career, Steve Kruse is watching helplessly as a bizarre situation has canceled Northern Kentucky University’s cross country season.

As a collegiate runner, Kruse witnessed a devastating budget cut at NKU that resulted in the elimination of the cross country program in 1981. It caused the Oak Hills High School graduate to leave NKU after his sophomore year. As a result, Kruse finished his education and athletic career at the University of Cincinnati.

A bit more than 39 years later, it’s the COVID-19 pandemic. Kruse is now the head coach of the NKU cross country program. He’s also the mentor of the Norse’s track and field team. But the NKU harriers are currently in runner’s limbo. The open-air roads around the Horizon League have detour signs with “COVID-19” in big, bold letters. No meets this fall.

Steve Kruse (center) built the NKU men’s and women’s cross country programs into regional powerhouses at the NCAA Division II level. (Photo by Jeff McCurry)

Kruse has seen it before — but from another perspective.

“This is totally different from what happened when I was a student at NKU with the budget cuts,” said Kruse, whose passion for distance running began in the 1970s. “I’m very impressed with the poise, the character and maturity our student-athletes have shown. They understand this is a global issue. This is not the state of Kentucky making cutbacks. We don’t know what the end-game is here.”

College football has resumed in many places around the nation. So has soccer, volleyball and, yes, cross country. But not in the Horizon League, which made the decision in August to postpone fall sports and instead compete in the spring.

According to the Horizon League’s statement on Aug. 13, “A decision on whether fall sport competition can take place in the spring will be determined by the Board and Council at a later date. Individual institutions will make decisions regarding training, practice and recruiting in accordance with NCAA regulations, state and institutional guidelines.”

Meanwhile, as an extraordinarily beautiful fall has commenced, with high school sports in full swing around the area, NKU cross country runners are relegated to practice. So are the Norse volleyball and soccer players, who normally compete for league championships in the fall.

How have the NKU runners reacted to the postponement of competition this fall?

“Would they like to be competing? Absolutely,” Kruse said. “But there is no national championship at this point. There is no Horizon League championship. It is what it is. No one is talking about transferring to another university that’s currently competing. They’re just waiting it out. They understand they are not losing a year of eligibility because of this.

“Most of them needed to work on what they were doing anyway. It can be looked at as a positive to get an extra year to build your strength and make yourself a better Division I athlete.”

The open-air roads around the Horizon League have detour signs with “COVID-19” in big, bold letters. No cross country meets this fall. (Photo by Jeff McCurry)

That’s a very mature perspective and should be applauded. But you can bet there’s plenty of grumbling from athletes and parents around the various Division I leagues/conferences that have postponed fall sports. They watch television and see college football, albeit without full stadiums. They surf the internet and learn other Division I conferences are currently competing in volleyball, soccer and cross country.

They’ve also seen the Big Ten flip-flop from saying “No football in the fall” to “Let’s get started on the road to the Rose Bowl” in a matter of weeks.

Health concerns about the virus? That’s what the Big Ten originally claimed when it canceled its fall football schedule. But dollar signs — millions and millions of them — apparently eased those concerns about the pandemic. So did numerous complaints from big-money boosters, television networks and threats of lawsuits from football players’ families. The Big Ten waffled and wilted and reversed course on its shallow pledge to avoid football games this fall. They now begin play in October. Money rules. Welcome to the real world. But that’s another topic.

Kruse said he can’t speak for other schools and the safety precautions they might be taking to compete this fall. He did point out NKU has adhered to all health protocols mandated to practice and has encountered no problems. He said his primary concern is the health of the runners and their families.

In past years, NKU runners competed in various meets during the fall. (Photo by Jeff McCurry)

“We’re taking the best path to secure their safety and to make sure we all come out of this pandemic healthy,” Kruse said. “There are strict protocols we’re following, and we’re taking them seriously. Our student-athletes are being responsible. Unless we’re running at practice, they’re wearing their masks.

“We’ve talked with them about this situation and they understand. They’ve watched the news for months and knew this (no fall meets) could happen. This isn’t like when I was a runner at NKU and the budget cuts came out of left field. We had no idea they were eliminating cross country. No one said a word to us. I was angry and so was everyone on our team at that time. But this is something completely different.”

Kruse, an articulate coach and pragmatic in his approach, was comforted by the reaction he saw before the first practice earlier this month.

“I was very surprised how positive our runners were about this situation,” he said. “There were a lot of smiles at practice. I think everyone was just happy to be around each other again after what’s happened the past few months.”

While everyone has felt the effects of the past seven months, Kruse said the downtime has made him appreciate every moment of normalcy. He hopes his runners have gained some of that perspective as well.

“Every time you step up to the line, you have to treat it as if it’s the last time,” Kruse said. “You never know when they’re going to pull the plug. They can plug it in, and they can pull it. You have to be ready.”

Steve Kruse: “Every time you step up to the line, you have to treat it as if it’s the last time.”

Contact Don Owen at don@nkytrib.com and follow him on Twitter at @dontribunesport

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