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Mountain West football to return on Oct. 24

UNM football coach Danny Gonzale is shown talking to players during the first spring practice on March 3. New Mexico’s conference, the Mountain West, announced a return to college football beginning on Oct. 24. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Mountain West Conference football is in for 2020 after all, as the league sent announced Thursday night an eight-game schedule to begin Oct. 24 with the championship game on Dec. 19, along with the fine print: Subject to approval from state, county and local officials.

That final note is especially important to the University of New Mexico’s football team, as the Lobos have not gotten the green light to fully practice and compete. Still, UNM first-year head coach Danny Gonzales was thrilled to hear the MWC news and eager to begin an actual season after so many obstacles and much adversity amid challenges stemming from the coronavirus pandemic.

Earlier in the day, the Pac-12 set a Nov. 6 start date for a seven-game football season, thus following the Big Ten in overturning an August decision to postpone until spring because of concerns about playing through the pandemic.

“We are very excited that the Mountain West Conference has decided that we’re getting back together starting games on Oct. 24,” Gonzales said during a phone interview Thursday night. “We’re excited as a football program. We’re excited as a team. We can’t wait to get out there to compete and represent.”

Gonzales would not comment if the Lobo football program has received approval from the state to begin contact practices and compete.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham earlier in the day seemed to crack open the door for practice in some contact sports, at least at the collegiate level, in the state.

“As we’re seeing successful COVID safe practices both for colleges sports around the country and for professional sports, it’s because they have a really strict set of COVID safe practices, including significant testing — rapid point-of-care-testing so you know immediately if someone has COVID so they’re not allowed to practice — and you are very clear about social contracts. You’ve got to be in a pod. You can’t go anywhere. You can’t do anything. And they can really hold you accountable because you are living at that university or you are a part of a professional team. That’s a much harder environment.

“I can tell you we don’t have the bandwidth to provide point of care rapid testing to every single youth sport or high school sport in the state. … I’m going to guess that’s not what some of the high schools and students want to hear. It’s too early. But I’m hopeful.”

Later, a governor’s spokesperson called her comments a “general outline of what she would need to see from an intercollegiate athletic program to be comfortable with allowing broader practices and even the possibility of games going forward. The administration remains in regular contact with university officials from all across the state on how we reach a point where strict safety protocols are in place for athletes and teams at the collegiate level that would create an environment where risk of infection and spread is minimized if not eliminated.”

Lujan Grisham earlier this year had asked leadership at state universities not to allow fall contact sports. For now there is no green light for football, soccer, cross country or volleyball at UNM, New Mexico State or any of the state’s NCAA Division II schools, though the NCAA has set a calendar for each of those sports for early 2021 .

And public health orders in New Mexico limit gatherings of more than 10 people.

The MWC sent out a short message along with the announcement: More information to be distributed Friday morning.

Bryson Carroll (6) runs the football for New Mexico in action last season vs. Colorado State. The Lobo football program is hopeful it can return soon following the Mountain West Conference’s announcement Thursday that it will bring back football in October. (Roberto E. Rosales/Journal)

That information should include testing protocol. On Wednesday, the conference was close to an agreement that would provide its 12 schools with the capacity to perform daily COVID-19 antigen tests on its athletes, according to the Associated Press.

Upon hearing the return-to-play news from the MWC late Thursday, Gonzales held a virtual team meeting. He was set to talk about the steps going forward for his team.

“Practices can start (on Friday),” Gonzales said. “It’s the same NCAA acclimation periods that are required every year. The first two days are in helmets like the workouts we’ve been doing. We’ll continue with the workouts that we have been doing. We’ll start that (Friday) and then we’ll move forward. As the acclimation period goes we’ll move forward. We’re excited.”

Gonzales, a UNM alumnus who grew up in Albuquerque and also worked for the Lobos as an assistant, saw COVID-19 shut down his spring practices in March. Gonzales and his coaching staff, which includes defensive coordinator Rocky Long (a former UNM head coach and an alum), have tried to be efficient given the circumstances and have prepared the UNM players mentally. Gonzales acknowledged that practicing, tackling and competing is the best way to develop his program.

He is hoping that will be the case as soon as early next week with the MWC season beginning Oct. 24.

The Pac-12 secured daily COVID-19 testing for its athletes and having been given the green light from some state and local health officials in California and Oregon, The Pac-12 university presidents voted unanimously to lift a Jan. 1 moratorium on athletic competition.

The Pac-12’s men’s and women’s basketball seasons can start Nov. 25, in line with the NCAA’s recently announced opening date. The football championship game will be held on Dec. 18. The Big Ten reversed course last week, with kickoff scheduled for the weekend of Oct. 24.

A major college football season that six weeks ago seemed to be in peril, slowly crumbling away, is reforming and has a chance to be almost whole by November.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.




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