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Notre Dame Football

Navy coach: Excitement to host Notre Dame muted by COVID-19

June 24, 2020

Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo’s excitement about an unexpected home game for the coming 2020 season quickly dissipated.

The reasons his Navy Midshipmen could not travel to Ireland to officially kick off the major college football season against Notre Dame were global, most notably the COVID-19 pandemic that’s infected millions around the world since its discovery in January.

So the chance to host Notre Dame in Annapolis at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium for the first time in the decades-old rivalry didn’t carry the same weight. It won’t include anything remotely resembling a capacity crowd, either, as social distancing measures remain the norm. Per Navy, the game is scheduled for Sept. 5 in Annapolis but also includes a TV option for Sunday, Sept. 6. ABC or ESPN will televise the game.

“When I first heard it was going to happen, when (Navy A.D. Chet Gladchuk) first told me about it, it was exciting to have the game here,” Niumatalolo said Wednesday afternoon in a Zoom session with reporters. “I started to think about [a picture of a full stadium], I was kind of hoping the stadium would like that, when we have some bigger games here at home we have a really good homefield advantage. I would love to play Notre Dame with our stadium packed with all of our fans. … So any help we could get would be helpful.

“Then I remembered we’re in a pandemic, and the reason not going to Ireland is because of the pandemic. We’re not going to have that many fans. So that kind of fizzled out pretty quickly. I’m excited to play them at home in our stadium. It’s historical in a lot of reasons. I’m grateful there will be some fans there if we do play; which it looks like everything is pressing forward that way.”

Added Niumatalolo, “I’m encouraged that there will be fans, but obviously it won’t be a full stadium. It will be different from other games we’ve played at the Naval Academy, but that’s the new norm now. Everything looks good [for a season], so I’m optimistic.

“Something could happen, but at this point I feel good about all that I’ve heard and seen and all the plans that have been put in place.”

Wherever the Midshipmen were going to be scheduled to play the Fighting Irish, coming off an 11-2 season, 52-20 win against Navy and top-15 final ranking, never occupied much of the Navy coach’s space; his focus has been on his players maxing out their abilities in the series’ 94th meeting.

“The whole time I was more concerned with how was everybody doing in the pandemic,” Niumatalolo said. “(Asking players) ‘How was your summer school classes going?’ ‘OK, how are we going to get these guys ready to play using virtual meetings?’ That is where all my focus was at.

“I wasn’t really concerned about where we were playing; I just know the people we’re opening up with, the last time we played them they beat us pretty good and I thought we had a really good team last year, and they quite frankly beat the crap out of us last year.

Navy’s players do not return to Annapolis until July 5, at which point Niumatalolo outlined they will be quarantined with their roommates in two-man dwellings and will not even be conducting small- or large-scale workouts through at minimum a two-week quarantine period.”

Still, Niumatalolo recognizes no amount of planning right now --- and he’s trying all iterations --- is going to help know quite what to expect when players return to campus.

“We’re going to start slower in our assessment,” Niumatalolo said. “We’re going to assume that you haven’t done anything. Again, at first, my medical staff and weight room staff had to convince me of this because I want to get going. (Saying) ‘OK, we have to start doing this. Everybody’s getting there June 1. We’re getting there July 5. We’re going to be behind. We’ve got two weeks of quarantine we can’t do anything. We’ve got to pick it up.’

“Guys were like, ‘Coach, we need to slow it down. Or we’re going to have a ton of injuries, guys could test positive (for COVID-19).’ So that’s what we’re going to do. Our testing and our protocol is pretty thorough and we’re going to start off with the baseline that everybody hasn’t really done much. Even though we know they have, just so we can work gradually to get to camp. But normally camp is long planned out, like by the end of April. This kind of makes my nerves bad, because camp isn’t planned out. Well, it has been but I’ve ripped it up 30 times.”

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