A promising season for the University of Rhode Island football team is ending early.
The Rams have canceled their last two regular-season games in the spring campaign due to positive COVID-19 tests within the program. They had been scheduled to face Maine on Saturday and Stony Brook next weekend.
“It's a very disappointing time,” athletic director Thorr Bjorn. “Not disappointed in our student-athletes, not disappointed in our staff. I couldn't be more proud of everything we've done to get to this point. We were so close and felt like we had a good opportunity ahead of us. Unfortunately, the positive tests put us in a position where we wouldn't be able to compete safely, and that's been our focus and our mission all the way through.”
With the season delayed from the fall, the Rams made it worth the wait early when they beat No. 6 Villanova in overtime in the season opener. They followed with another overtime win over a Top 25 Albany team in Week 2, and joined the Top 25 themselves.
Delaware handed URI its first loss on March 27 before COVID issues began to impact the Rams, first from a distance and then right at home. New Hampshire canceled its April 3 game with the Rams due to COVID protocols in its own program.
The Rams were hit with several positive tests of their own on Tuesday, enough to dictate a 10-day pause. That wiped out the game with Maine and would not leave enough time for a return to practice ahead of the season finale with Stony Brook.
“The amount of time our players put in to working, competing and practicing with the hope to play in some sort of season, and then to have the success that they did early on certainly made all that work worthwhile,” Bjorn said. “That's the part I feel worst about — all that time and doing things the right way, but they didn't have a chance to finish out the season.”
The spring football campaign was part of a significant adjustment for the athletic program, which played no sports in the fall and shifted all of them to spring. While there have been issues along the way — the women's soccer team also had to end its season early — the opportunity was there for players to get some sort of season in.
“One of the things I have to keep reminding myself is that we promised ourselves, and our student-athletes more importantly, that we would do everything in our power to put them in a position to compete in a safe manner,” Bjorn said. “We were able to do that. When it was taken out of our hands, we made the decision to follow through on that promise, that we weren't able to have them compete in the same safe manner and this is the direction we needed to go. I certainly feel really bad for our student-athletes. Great young men who have worked extremely hard in unprecedented times.”
With more success down the stretch, the Rams may have been in the mix for an FCS playoff berth but will now watch from the sidelines, along with several of their Colonial Athletic Association brethren. Albany and New Hampshire have also opted out of the remainder of their seasons.
It will be a quick turnaround for the Rams ahead of the fall 2021 season. URI is slated to play a full slate, beginning Sept. 4 against Bryant.
While there's no telling what the landscape will look like then, Bjorn can envision a more normal season.
“I finally feel like we have a light at the end of the tunnel,” Bjorn said. “Obviously, there are some things we control and some things we don't. But with the vaccine coming out and seeming to have some greater sense of normalcy in so many other facets of our life, I'd like to think that we're going to move forward into a more traditional fall. That's what we're doing — we're going full steam ahead. Similar to what we said last summer, until someone tells us something different, that's the motivating factor that we have. And I believe very, very strongly after what we've all been through this year, that sense of normalcy should be there. Obviously, we've been thrown curveballs left and right. You all have. But I'd like to think we'll be back for full go.”
In the trajectory of a football season, the shortened spring campaign profiles as an especially productive round of the usual spring practice. URI hopes it's a big step in the right direction ahead of a return to action in the fall.
“I think the guys have a great sense of confidence after three really well-played games. I think the guys really believe in themselves,” Bjorn said. “It was a great chance for coach Fleming to have his new coordinators and new staff members showing what they can do. What's been fun for me is to see the belief and confidence level in our players. After a tough year in 2019, they know they can compete in some of the best in our league.”