Like many sports seasons in 2020, the Mountain East Conference’s fall football season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now, in 2021, Mountain East football is underway once again with a new look, as the abbreviated six-game spring season started on Thursday with Frostburg State defeating Wheeling 27-20.
West Virginia State University and the University of Charleston, however, have a tad more waiting to do before they get back on the gridiron.
State won’t have to wait much longer, as the Yellow Jackets are slated to host West Virginia Wesleyan at 1 p.m. Saturday in front of about 275 fans (including family members and around 50 students).
UC was scheduled to face Concord Thursday, but COVID cases within Concord’s program resulted in postponement. The game will be added to the end of the teams’ regular-season schedules on April 17.
Charleston coach Pat Kirkland talked about the disappointment of this week’s postponement.
“It’s been a year and four months since we played,” Kirkland said. “We were supposed to play [Thursday] and found out about [the postponement] on Monday. Guys [were] getting so excited about it. The biggest thing was just from a mental standpoint. It’s been tough on the coaches, families, players, everybody involved.”
Kirkland remained positive and is looking forward, preparing for his team’s eventual first game — a March 20 home affair with Glenville State. He said there are a lot of unknowns and his preparation method revolves around fundamentals.
“We’re just getting our guys good at what we do,” he said. “We don’t know personnel-wise what these teams have. There’s a lot of new coaches involved. These guys just want an opportunity to get out there and compete. They’ve been through a lot with very little daylight to look forward to.”
After the hiatus, State coach John Pennington said he is grateful and excited for the season to start.
“[I’m grateful for] our administration, our school, the athletic department, how they’ve kept us safe and continue to move forward,” Pennington said. “We’ve been blessed so far to have very few cases [of COVID-19], and when we have had them, we’ve been able to keep them to a minimum. I’m really excited for that.”
Pennington and Kirkland talked about the challenges presented in preparation for full-contact football games while abiding by safety guidelines.
Pennington said he’s focused on keeping things remote unless absolutely necessary. This means a lot of Zoom meetings and holding in-person gatherings outdoors.
“For us the biggest changes are getting good at Zoom meetings, making sure our players are on time, in the Zoom meeting. We get to see their face, [they’re] paying attention, taking notes. As a program, we’ve put an emphasis on getting good at virtual meetings. There is no other option.”
Kirkland said he isn’t worried about lack of practice time but emphasized the effect another week of postponement had on his players, staff and others.
“First and foremost, the safety of these players and coaches and family members involved is the number-one priority. But we also have to make sure mentally these guys are in a good place. I wasn’t concerned with the lack of practice times because we had been meeting and doing some walk-throughs. My main concern was how much these guys were looking forward to the opportunity [Thursday].”
Regardless of the challenges COVID-19 brings, football is being played in the MEC. Both coaches are appreciative of that.
“When you look at the big picture, we’re blessed that players are back,” Kirkland said. “I can’t tell you how well the leadership team at the University of Charleston has done of managing the situation. Now let’s just play a game. Regardless if we have to play 11 first-year players next Saturday, we’re going to figure it out. I’m just excited to get out there.”
“We finally get to compete again,’’ Pennington said. “In our locker room [and] in our staff room, we just want to compete. We want to play. It’s what we are trained to do. The excitement, the nervousness, the thrill, the anxiety, I feel like I haven’t done it in years.”
Two other MEC games are taking place on Saturday, as Glenville State hosts UNC Pembroke at noon and Notre Dame hosts West Liberty at 2 p.m.