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UNM football: Opener is canceled and who knows what’s next

UNM football coach Danny Gonzalez during first day of spring football practice in March. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

The University of New Mexico football team will not play its season opener Saturday at Colorado State due to the prevalence of COVID-19 in Bernalillo County and state of New Mexico guidelines.

UNM athletic director Eddie Nuñez announced the news in a virtual press conference at noon on Tuesday, saying he learned the news himself from UNM President Garnett Stokes just 20 minutes prior.

“I believe we could play, but with the restrictions and what’s happening around us, it makes it difficult to do so,” Nuñez said.

New Mexico saw record-breaking positive cases of COVID-19 last week, peaking at a new daily record of 819 on Friday. While those numbers are now trending down from that total, they remain high compared to the numbers that had New Mexico ranking as one of the safer states in the country for several months.

While the Lobos have nine players and a staff member who have tested positive and are quarantining away from the rest of the team, it was a surge in numbers in Bernalillo County specifically that triggered the state to step in and inform UNM to shut down full practices. The Lobos had been practicing in groups no larger than five since Saturday, as allowed by the public health order, and had initially planned to do so in that fashion until flying to Colorado on Friday for the game.

“I’m disappointed for our team,” said UNM coach Danny Gonzales. “They’ve made a commitment to this process. They’ve worked their tails off to have the opportunity to compete. They’ve done everything we’ve asked. They knew how challenging it was going to be. We knew how challenging it was going to be.”

UNM football players were not available to the media.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, in reply to a series of Journal questions, noted it wasn’t any one person who decided to cancel the game Saturday, but rather the result of an agreement that UNM made with the state — the “COVID-Safe Practices for Intercollegiate Sports” guidelines. Those guidelines mandate practices must stop if the school is located in a county with a 14-day average daily case count above eight per 100,000 and a test positivity rate of over 5%.

Late last week, peaking with Friday’s state record 819 new positive COVID-19 cases, Bernalillo County’s numbers increased past the threshold allowed to practice with a 14-day average case count of 14.1 per 100,000 and a positivity rate of 4.7%.

“Those COVID-Safe Practices include very clear criteria for when public health conditions deteriorate to the point that intercollegiate games and practices are not safe and may not occur,” wrote Lujan Grisham Press Secretary Nora Meyers Sackett in an email. “As such, it is not the case that the university had to be told or that a decision had to be made. … The agreed-upon guidelines already establish when those trigger-points are reached, and they have been, and we are all hopeful the uncontrolled spread of the virus in Bernalillo County is brought back under control in the very near future, ensuring intercollegiate athletics can proceed safely.”

Nuñez said the Lobos will prepare to play the Oct. 31 home opener against San Jose State by practicing in small groups, but acknowledged that the numbers would restrict them from playing then as well.

“We’re going to have to continue to have those conversations again to see if we can find a way to change the equation or figure out a different way for us to be viewed,” Nuñez said. “To show our kids are doing tests and we’re doing tests again. We’re going to do tests again tomorrow regardless of the outcome. We’re going to continue to do what we stated we would do because we’re going to prove to everybody that our kids are able to represent the institution in the right way.”

It was technically the Mountain West Conference that made the call to cancel the game, doing so after UNM informed officials it could not attend. The conference will deem any COVID-related cancelled game a “no-contest” rather than a forfeit, leaving CSU and UNM both with just seven games scheduled this season.

While Tuesday’s news and discussions all centered around Lobo football, the Bernalillo County data that led to football not being able to practice in groups larger than five also applies to Lobo men’s and women’s basketball. The same is true for New Mexico State men’s and women’s basketball as Doña Ana County’s numbers are currently worse than Bernalillo County’s.

Official NCAA basketball practices started nationwide last Wednesday.

The Journal’s Geoff Grammer contributed to this story,

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