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Athletics: Ragin' Cajuns happy to play now, not wait until the spring

Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, Sept. 4, 2020

The Ragin’ Cajuns are proceeding with plans to play football in the fall, starting with a Sept. 12 visit to Iowa State, and the rest of the Sun Belt Conference is on as well.

Elsewhere in the country, however, some leagues have scrapped hopes for starting this month due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic that according to Johns Hopkins University date has killed more than 185,000 and infected more than 6 million in the United States alone – including the Big Ten, the Pac-12, the MAC and the Mountain West – and some intend to instead give it a shot in the spring.

How would the Cajuns feel if they too had to wait? Is playing in the spring, then turning around and doing it in the fall, doable?

UL head coach Billy Napier said a few weeks back that the possibility of playing in the spring was “hypothetical” and suggested he did not even want to go down the road of discussing it.

But Cajun players didn’t seem to mind, and opinions among them are mixed.

Related:UL players adamant about desire to play football season

More:Cajuns land ESPN date for season-opener at Iowa State

“I think we’ll just be prepared to play whenever,” UL receiver Peter LeBlanc said, “and I think it doesn’t really matter when.”

“We’ve all thought about it. It would be pretty difficult,” running back Elijah Mitchell added. “But I think we can absolutely do it. … It wouldn’t be ideal, but we can get it done for sure.”

Chris Smith, another UL running back, isn’t so sure.

“That would be hard on our body, because spring – that was supposed to be our time for recovery from the previous season,” he said.

“So if we played a spring season, then with the fall, I’m not too sure everybody’s body would be capable of taking that impact.”

More:Patience should pay for Ragin' Cajuns speedster Smith

'A LITTLE WEIRD'

But the bottom line for some is that it is time to go, coronavirus risks – and there are plenty of them, including potential long-term heart, blood vessel and lung damage for those who contract the virus – be darned.

Starting cornerback Eric Garror said the idea playing two seasons in the same year doesn’t sound “realistic.”

“But we love the game of football,” Garror said.

So what the calendar says, in other words, doesn’t necessarily ultimately matter.

Neither does the fact there is uncertainty over what postseason play will look like, and how many – if any – bowl games will be staged this year.

More:UL athletes have COVID-19 concerns as students return

The Cajuns and coronavirus:Heart concerns the real deal

Napier said that as far as he knows, there will at least some “opportunities” for bowl.

How many is anyone’s best guess for now.

Whatever the case, some of Garror’s teammates have expressed similar sentiments as he did since preseason camp opened early last month.

“We want to play right now,” fellow cornerback Jayrin Wilson said.

“We don’t really want to have to wait to the spring, then jump right back to another season. That would be a little weird for us, because we have never done that before. We’ve always known ‘fall football.’ ”

Related:Cajuns love Acadiana High's Jayrin Wilson now, but didn't at first

FOOTBALL 'VERY HARD' IN THE SPRING

College basketball players know a schedule that typically opens in early November, runs through March Madness and, for a lucky few, does not end until early April.

Football overlapping with basketball when conference tourneys and even the NCAA Tournament are underway?

“Just an opinion … I think it will be very hard to play football in the spring,” UL basketball coach Bob Marlin said recently, “and I’ve heard that from some people that have knowledge of the situation.”

Marlin – whose team, depending on what guidelines the NCAA hands down later this month, is for now expected to open its season later than originally planned, but to open nonetheless – has similar reservations about discussing hypotheticals as Napier.

“I can’t get caught up in something that’s not there yet,” he said.

But Marlin did entertain the idea.

“It will be a challenge if that does happen,” he said of possible early 2021 overlap.

“We could several sports going on at once, right, with basketball and football, baseball and softball. It will keep our fans busy.”

More:Cajun coaches think basketball will happen, but when?

'AN IMPOSSIBLE TASK'

For coaches of UL’s other fall sports besides football, reality is that their seasons are about to begin as well.

The NCAA’s Division Board of Governors has said it will “work toward hosting scaled back fall championships in the spring.”

But there will be no waiting until the spring for the Cajuns and others in the SBC, even though the fact some conferences are playing now but many others are not has made scheduling a logistical nightmare.

“It’s really been an impossible task,” women’s soccer coach Lance Key said.

“Not just with COVID, but everything else, the volatility of the time we’re in right has been real challenging for everybody, and it’s overlapped into the scheduling piece.

“At times you’re cancelling three games in a morning, in a two-hour span. … Then you’re quickly on the phone,” Key added, “trying to see who’s left and who wants to play, and who can play, who’s got open dates. … We feel really fortunate, honestly, to have put together the schedule we have.”

With fans allowed but capacity reduced and plans for social distancing in place, Key’s Cajuns open an abbreviated 13-game schedule Friday night at home against Abilene Christian of the Southland Conference.

Coach Heather Mazeitis-Fontenot’s UL volleyball team, meanwhile, currently has a 23-match schedule that actually includes one more match than originally planned.

Her Cajuns are scheduled to open Friday night against Southland member Houston Baptist at Earl K. Long Gym, where members of the general public will not be permitted but a pass list for admittance instead will utilized.  

“It has been a very interesting time back on campus for our team,” Mazeitis-Fontenot said, “and we are adapting very, very well to our environment.”

More:UL football schedule may be tougher, but will it all be played?

SO MANY QUESTIONS

So soccer and volleyball is on for UL and the Sun Belt.

Football too.

But that’s not the case in the Southland, which nixed its fall league schedule for football and other sports but is allowing teams to play non-conference games and matches if they wish.

One Southland program that opted not to play now is McNeese, which cancelled a football game against UL originally scheduled for Saturday at Cajun Field that would have marked the season opener for both teams.

The Southland instead plans to play its conference schedule in the spring, coronavirus conditions permitting.

How does it plan to pull that off?

“Obviously the calendar and some things are going to have to change in the next 12 months,” McNeese interim athletic director Heath Schroyer said when the Cowboys canceled on UL. “We all know that.

“I know all of us are very, very committed to having a football season. I think the majority of the country is committed to having a football season. But the dates and times and all those things, right now we’re trying to work all that out.”

More:McNeese AD explains decision to not play the Cajuns

But how? And when?

When would a preseason camp open? When would the actual spring schedule start? What would the holidays look like?

“Like every athletic director and coach in the country,” Schroyer said a few weeks back, “we want answers sooner than later.”

'WE'RE GONNA GET THROUGH IT'

But even as some of the answers trickle in, there’s a chance they all could change.

So is the notion of football in the spring even realistic, or is it dangling false hope?

The uncertainty is especially challenging for Schroyer, who besides trying to guide McNeese through the nightmare of COVID-19 and now the catastrophic damage caused last week by Hurricane Lauta at the school and in the greater Lake Charles area also is the Cowboys’ head basketball coach.

More:Cajuns 'very fortunate' to dodge major hurricane damage

Might college basketball really not start until January, right around the same time teams could be gearing up for Southland football conference play?

Or will basketball only have to wait until late November?

Schroyer isn’t sure.

“But I’ve heard the same rumors,” he said.

“I think it’s going to work itself out. … It’s obviously going to be a challenging time in the spring for every athletic department – how to coordinate all those things. But we’re gonna get through it.”

'ANOTHER DAY AT THE OFFICE'

Even now, with the Cajuns’ football game against Iowa State fast-approaching, nothing is set in stone.

On Monday – the same day the city in which the Cyclones play, Ames, Iowa, reportedly was identified as the country’s worst coronavirus hot spot – Iowa State announced it would permit up to 25,000 fans, most of them socially distanced season-ticket holders, to attend the game against UL.

By Wednesday, amid much backlash locally and even nationally, Iowa State balked and announced no fans would be allowed.

Reverses:Iowa State reverses course, says no fans at football opener vs. Cajuns

Will the Cajuns really wind up making the trip?

For UL coach Napier, there evidently is no fear about taking his team to Ames even with the virus currently being out of control there.

He said Wednesday night that his players and “entire organization” are “completely healthy across the board” with “zero positive” tests and no one in quarantine following its latest round of COVID-19 testing, and suggested the Cajuns are prepared to hit the road.

“I think at one point Louisiana was one of the worst in the country,” Napier said, “so this will be just another day at the office for us.

“We’re going there to play football. We’ll fly in there, we’ll spend time in our hotel, we’ll travel to the game, it’s an early kickoff (11 a.m. central on ESPN). I mean, it’s business as usual for us and our guys are going to take the necessary precautions.”

Playing football, it seems, is all Napier’s Cajuns really want to do.

No matter how the season unfolds, no matter how it ends, whether there is a bowl game to cap it all off or not, members of a team that already has lost non-conference games against McNeese, Wyoming, New Mexico State and Missouri – but added ones against Iowa State, Alabama-Birmingham and Central Arkansas – just want to get going.

“I think we’d be excited to play whenever, whoever,” receiver LeBlanc said back in August. “It doesn’t matter, really, what the stakes are. We’re just excited to play.”

More:Cajuns add UAB, Central Arkansas to their 2020 schedule



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