You simply have to feel for New Hampshire head coach Sean McDonnell. After a battle with cancer sidelined him from his post at the helm of the Wildcats in 2019 and COVID-19 delayed the 2020 football season to the next calendar year, McDonnell, an FCS playoff regular at UNH, had gone an unusually long time without pacing the sidelines in a game.
And just as UNH was getting back underway with its March 5 season-opener versus Albany under its belt, everything stopped.
“It was a downhill spiral right from the Thursday after our game against Albany,” McDonnell said Monday. “With kids getting COVID and then contact tracing. And it slowly just kept building through that week and then towards the end of last week.”
Although UNH had a regularly-scheduled bye week immediately after the Albany contest, that timing did not afford a buffer that could save March 20’s game versus Delaware or March 27’s matchup at Villanova. Both games were postponed, but the mathematical odds of rescheduling both are slim to none when the CAA’s composite calendar is considered.
Before any schedule reconstruction can be attended to, though, New Hampshire has to get back in gear.
“The numbers were such that, obviously, we had to put the program on shutdown,” said McDonnell. “And [we] still have not gotten back to a paused situation or an acclimation period yet.”
McDonnell estimated that it would take seven-to-eight practices to get UNH’s legs back under it “getting physically running again.” The Wildcats have been limited to roommate-only workout groups while their facility is closed.
As for team-wide work, McDonnell said, “We have not done anything physically, basically, since March 10 when all this stuff hit. Because March 11 was a sweat practice, walk-through, starting our preparation for Delaware, and then that day we got hit and started going.”
The circumstances being as extraordinary as they are, the CAA’s longest-tenured coach even consulted New Hampshire’s hockey and basketball coaches “about what it takes to get back in the groove to practice to get ready for a game.”
While that largely sounds as bleak as March New England weather can be, McDonnell did speak of “a light at the end of the tunnel,” as the Wildcats recorded no new positive tests on the Saturday that would have been their game against Delaware. Their next scheduled game is April 3 at Rhode Island, which has surged to a 2-0 start heading into Saturday’s top-25 melee with Delaware.
Meanwhile, New Hampshire’s CAA counterpart to the south, James Madison, is another ranked team that has experienced a substantial COVID-19-induced delay. The No. 1 Dukes have not seen action since their March 6 win at Elon in which Gage Moloney took the reins at quarterback. Two home games (versus William & Mary and Richmond) have since been postponed.
With no guarantee that those meetings will be made up given the aforementioned calendar limitations at play, JMU has postseason pressure from this moment onward as fast-starting CAA North division rivals Delaware and Rhode Island push for the inside track to the conference’s FCS playoff automatic bid. The compressed playoff format this spring, in which previously handy at-large slots are scarce, makes the auto-bid all the more coveted.
Said Dukes head coach Curt Cignetti Monday, “If there was ever a time to really focus on the process and eliminate the clutter, it’s now. If we’re fortunate enough to play Saturday [at William & Mary], we’re in a position where every game is now a playoff game.”
While the reality of playing football amid the pandemic necessitated a realistic approach to this spring, the sheer experience of unraveling into a program-wide pause has still been much to absorb and has been a test in adaptation.
“I knew going in that there were gonna be disruptions, chances were there would be disruptions, and you were gonna have to be flexible and take kind of a big-picture perspective and try not to get too caught up in things you can’t control,” Cignetti continued later. “But still, the setbacks are hard to deal with. And the information that we were able to get from all the other coaches across the country that have been through it has been very beneficial.”
“But now we’re in it. We’re dealing with everything we heard about right now.”