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So many unknowns for Lobos ahead of CSU

UNM football coach Danny Gonzales, seen here during spring practice in March, says the Lobos will be ready for their season opener. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

The University of New Mexico football team is preparing to play at Colorado State in a Mountain West Conference season opener on Saturday without full-contact practices this week because of the state’s health order.

The Lobos returned to practice, in small groups, on Saturday after activities were shut down on Thursday and Friday because eight UNM players and one staff member tested positive for COVID-19. Because of rising numbers of positive cases in New Mexico, the Lobos were restricted from full-contact practices after the two-day break.

Still, UNM first-year coach Danny Gonzales believes his team will be ready to play on Saturday.

“We’re going as planned until they tell me differently,” Gonzales said on Monday. “I worry about what I can control until they tell me otherwise.”

Late last week, with several consecutive days of new record highs in positive COVID-19 cases, the Bernalillo County numbers followed state trends and rose to levels that led the state to step in and say it, too, wanted UNM to shut down full-contact, full team practices.

Friday saw a record high in new cases at 819 in the state — numbers trending back down in recent days. There were 518 new cases on Monday across the state.

According to the “COVID-Save Practices for Intercollegiate Sports” manual established by the state, for college teams to be exempt from the state’s health order limiting practices to groups of five, the school “must be located in a county with a 14-day average daily case count of fewer than eight per 100,000 and a test positivity rate of under five (5) percent.”

As of Monday, according to the state’s Department of Health website, Bernalillo County was at 4.7% positivity rate, but still at 14.1 per 100,000 on average daily case count, preventing them from being allowed to practice — same as the men’s and women’s basketball teams at both UNM and New Mexico State.

“We will continue to plan to play but understand that there is nothing typical when dealing with this virus,” UNM athletic director Eddie Nuñez said. “We will adjust and work with the state as we move forward.”

The state and UNM are continually discussing potential amendments or modifications, not unlike when the state allowed New Mexico United to be exempt from parts of the Public Health Order and travel despite quarantine obligations since July. Like UNM, United was subject to multiple tests per week and it was agreed that it would be dangerous to play matches without proper training between games.

But as of Monday, there was no indication of a change coming from the state.

“The intent of the CSPs is to protect public health and to ensure that any unnecessary person-to-person interaction does not take place if COVID-19 rates are dangerously high, which they currently are,” said Nora Meyers Sackett, Press Secretary for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. “… University athletics being able to safely​ conduct team activities is dependent on both the school’s adherence to stringent criteria designed to prevent any potential virus spread and ​the program existing in a safe environment. University campuses and their respective athletic teams do not exist in a vacuum, even with their best intentions at isolation, clearly evidenced by the fact that the UNM football team has already seen multiple cases of COVID-19.”

Gonzales said he is doing his best to be creative considering the restrictions and preparing his team virtually, just as he did during the summer and into September before the Lobos received the green light for full-contact practices. The key for that go-ahead occurring was frequent testing, including three times per week, as paid for by the MWC.

“They’re excited to play,” Gonzales said of the Lobos. “We’re trying to be creative. It’s a lot of virtual teaching. Our only chance is if they’ll play hard and not make mistakes. They gotta be physical and play hard. That’s hard to do without running into each other. But at the same time, for the first game, you want them to be fresh. So, it’s a unique balance. It’s different now because we’re doing it in different size groups. We’re not practicing as a whole team. That’s a big disadvantage, but we’ll be creative.”

The eight players and one staff member (UNM will not identify them) who tested positive for the coronavirus will not be with the team if the Lobos do indeed travel to Fort Collins, Colorado on Friday. Gonzales said there will also be some other players out because they were linked to those who tested positive through contact tracing. He would not provide the amount of players who will sit out from contact tracing.

“We knew it was going to be challenging,” Gonzales said. “We knew there was going to be difficult situations. Roster management is tougher than it’s ever been. Normally, a kid has a stomach ache. He fights through it and he’s good to go and he plays on Saturday. But right now they have a stomach ache, you sit him down until you determine what it is. It’s crazy. It’s a different dynamic than it’s ever been.”

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