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Steve Virgen: COVID is now Lobo football’s major rival

UNM Lobo football helmet. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

As soon as University of New Mexico football coach Danny Gonzales found out Tuesday the Lobos’ season opener at Colorado State on Saturday had been canceled, he turned his attention to their newest opponent: COVID-19.

Or as Gonzales calls it: the Covid Door.

Steve Virgen

“It’s just another door that has been put in front of us that we need to knock down,” Gonzales said after a reporter had asked if the cancellation news felt like a punch in the gut. “Our kids are committed to keep proving that they can fight this, and mitigate it and do the things that we put in place to have the opportunity. I’m proud of them for their effort, attitude and want-to. As disappointed as they were, we’re going to keep moving forward to fight for the opportunity to play.”

It’s been a tumultuous and highly challenging debut year for Gonzales as coach at his alma mater, but you wouldn’t know that from his remarks at Tuesday’s virtual press conference.

He is determined to build a winner at UNM – “Before I die, we’re going to hold up a fifth conference championship for this school,” he said.

Apparently the efforts begin with a narrative that the coronavirus is the adversary. He won’t complain about state guidelines, Bernalillo County’s positivity rate numbers or players testing positive for COVID-19 – all of which were factors in the cancellation of the Lobos-CSU game, four days before it was scheduled to take place.

The Lobos are practicing in small groups and hoping they will be allowed to play their home opener on Oct. 31 against San Jose State. That doesn’t look promising either, because of the numbers of positive cases relating to the “COVID-Safe Practices for Intercollegiate Sports” guidelines. Those guidelines mandate full contact 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 numbers, if they don’t improve, would prevent the Lobos from playing on Halloween.

New Mexico reported another record high number of COVID-19 cases Wednesday with 827 new infections statewide.

The seven-day average of 633 is also a record high.

Bernalillo County reported 292 new cases — one of the highest daily counts yet.

The players are tested for COVID three times per week. Gonzales said he knows where his players are every hour of each day. He believes the bubble surrounding UNM Athletics is the safest pace in the entire state. Yet, the Lobos have nine players and a staff member who have tested positive recently and are quarantining away from the rest of the team.

Gonzales believes the Lobos will be able to play a game at some point.

“You can’t let things break you,” he said. “I try to relay that message to our team. I think your team is going to take on the attitude and personality of the guys that are in charge. I think that we have a great coaching staff that is committed to doing this.”

Time will tell if Gonzales can bring a championship to UNM, but for now, the coach is saying all the right things and making all the right moves even as the Lobos have yet to play a game.

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