In this October 2019 photo, Dor Saar of the University of Maine (15) is pictured during a game in Bangor. Credit: Courtesy of Peter Buehner

Division I winter sports athletes who compete this season will receive an additional season of eligibility and an additional year in which to complete it.

Competition during the 2020-21 winter season will not count toward the NCAA’s eight-semester, five-year eligibility limits for scholarship athletes.

The decision was made by the NCAA Division I Council, which provided the same blanket waiver previously approved for athletes competing in spring sports and fall sports for 2020.

Spring sports were canceled by the COVID-19 pandemic and many schools have canceled their fall seasons. Some are playing, while others have pushed their fall seasons to spring 2021.

“The pandemic will continue to impact winter sports seasons in ways we can’t predict. Council members opted to provide for winter sport student-athletes the same flexibility given spring and fall sports previously,” said NCAA Division I Council Chair M. Grace Calhoun, the athletics director at the University of Pennsylvania.

“The actions ensure the continuation of local decision-making in the best interest of each institution and its student-athletes,” she said.

University of Maine men’s hockey coach Red Gendron agrees with the council’s decision.

“It’s the right thing to do,” Gendron said. “This gives the student-athletes an opportunity to finish their college careers and have the full experience they signed up for.”

However, the ruling will create challenges for coaches trying to manage their rosters and budgets.

Teams will retain scholarship athletes they were expecting to depart and will also have another incoming class of scholarship athletes for 2021-22.

The NCAA has allowed schools to provide additional scholarship money beyond the usual limits to accommodate any roster increase. Seniors return for a fifth year won’t have their scholarships counted towards the NCAA maximum.

For example, 15 full scholarships are allowed in women’s Division I basketball. So if UMaine head coach Amy Vachon has five seniors on full scholarships and they all decided to return, that would theoretically enable her to carry 20 scholarship players during the 2021-22 season.

That is only a possibility for Division I schools that can afford to provide the extra scholarship money.

“We don’t have that luxury,” said Vachon, who acknowledged the ruling will impact her program.

“It has so many repercussions. But they aren’t all bad. We will just have to manage our recruiting and our rosters,” Vachon said.

UMaine has five freshmen this season who also will be freshmen, eligibility-wise, again next season. Bringing in five more first-year players to account for the five seniors the Black Bears were expecting to lose would give Vachon 10 players with four years of eligibility starting with the 2021-22 season.

Blanca Millan and Fanny Wadling, already fifth-year seniors who were medical redshirts a year ago, also would be eligible to return for a sixth year.

The UMaine women’s program usually carries 13 or 14 players on its roster. Division I men’s basketball allows 13 scholarship athletes.

Gendron, who is permitted 18 scholarship athletes, said coaches will have to assess their rosters to determine their makeup heading into 2021-22.

“The first thing you have to do is have conversations with the athletes,” Gendron said. “Then you have conversations with your staff on whether you want to give players extra time and whether to delay some others that are coming into your program.”

Some student-athletes may elect to graduate and begin work or turn pro, a few may transfer and others potentially could be asked not to return to accommodate incoming players. All of those dynamics can be part of normal roster movement.