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Navy football works to build brotherhood while scattered across country during coronavirus pandemic

Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo, seen cheering on his team in the first half of the Liberty Bowl against Kansas State on Dec. 31, has been focusing on team building and bonding.
Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo, seen cheering on his team in the first half of the Liberty Bowl against Kansas State on Dec. 31, has been focusing on team building and bonding. (Mark Humphrey / AP)

Ken Niumatalolo got away to his native state of Hawaii during the Naval Academy spring break. Navy’s 13th-year head coach planned to spend just over a week at his home on Oahu before returning to Annapolis to begin spring practice on March 16.

Niumatalolo never imagined he would still be in Hawaii on April 10 with no idea when he will return to Annapolis. He is trying to oversee a football program from as far away as one could be while sheltering in place along with his wife, children and grandchildren.

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“In such unprecedented times, my first concern is the health and well-being of my family. Second is the health and welfare of our coaches, support staff and their families,” Niumatalolo told The Capital in a telephone interview this week. “Things are not normal, so you do the best you can. Like everyone else, my family is staying at home and doing our part to flatten the curve.”

Under normal circumstances, Navy’s spring football camp would wrap up this coming Thursday. Niumatalolo and staff would have conducted between 12 and 15 practices, which would have proven invaluable toward building toward the 2020 season.

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“Losing spring camp definitely impacts. Everyone has a process for building a team and spring ball is a big part of that,” Niumatalolo said. “There are certain things you look to accomplish during those 12 to 15 practices. You want to evaluate some of the young, up and coming players and build a depth chart. There is no replacing spring practice.”

Naval Academy athletic director Chet Gladchuk remains hopeful the Navy football season opener against Notre Dame, scheduled for August 29 in Dublin, Ireland, will be held.

In hindsight, Niumatalolo does feel grateful the Navy football program completed its January strength and conditioning workouts along with the February pre-dawn sessions famously known as “fourth quarters.”

“You start from scratch every year when it comes to building the culture of your football team,” Niumatalolo said. “I felt really good going into spring practice based off what I’d seen in the previous two and a half months. I feel like our culture is strong. From what I’ve seen so far, we have good leadership.”

Niumatalolo implemented a major change last year by waiting until after spring camp to have the players vote for captains. For many years, the next season’s captains were announced during the annual postseason Navy football banquet and therefore were in place going into offseason workouts and spring practice.

Considering the circumstances, it is unclear when Navy will announce its 2020 captains. Niumatalolo may hold a vote toward the end of the spring semester, which is now being conducted remotely since the Brigade of Midshipmen never returned to the Naval Academy following an extended spring break.

For now, everyone involved with Navy football is doing everything possible to build the team culture through the Zoom video conferencing system.

Niumatalolo, who is dealing with a six-hour time difference (it is 3 a.m. in Hawaii when it is 9 a.m. in Annapolis), is holding virtual staff meetings three times per week. Assistants are running two position meetings each week.

For instance, quarterbacks coach Ivin Jasper will send specific film to all the players at his position then discuss various topics and possibly administer a test about the material.

“If you are prepared to teach online there are some things you can do. We’re doing the best we can with it,” Niumatalolo said. “Our approach is to do enough football to help guys stay sane.”

Navy senior Kelly Larkin was on pace to break NCAA records before coronavirus ended her career.

It’s far from ideal and downright impossible sometimes considering Navy has players residing in every time zone of the United States. Those players are all taking online classes that are held at different times of the day.

Niumatalolo reiterated that he’s not so concerned about the football piece at this time. Instead, the college football lifer has been focusing on team building and bonding. On March 27, Navy football held a virtual meeting with all the players and coaches participating.

Players were asked to provide an update on their situation and assure they were safe and sound. Players then divided into position groups and were challenged to get to know each other better.

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“We had 100-plus players online talking and I think it was valuable,” Niumatalolo said. “Right now, I’m most concerned with the welfare of our players — physically, emotionally and spiritually.”

Navy football strength and conditioning coordinator Bryan Fitzpatrick has sent workout plans to all the players, most of which are specific to each respective position. Players are asked to work out in whatever way they can based on the resources at their disposal.

“It’s not ideal. Some guys have access to a weight room or equipment at home. Some guys have a yard they can utilize, while some guys live in apartments,” Niumatalolo said. "I feel like as far as working out is concerned, we’re now on a level playing field with all the other schools. Players throughout the county are doing push-ups in their garage or bench pressing in their basement.”

Cary Kolat says “there is no doubt in my mind" he can build something special at Navy.

In fact, Niumatalolo thinks Navy may have a leg up on its competition in the American Athletic Conference because its football players by nature are disciplined with a strong work ethic.

“Other schools might have nicer facilities or better weight rooms, but we have special kids that are mentally tough. We feel that could be a big advantage for our program,” Niumatalolo said.

“Guys are on their own as far as staying in shape. Hopefully, our culture is strong enough that players will be self-motivated. Hopefully, during this time, the discipline that is ingrained in Naval Academy football players will show through,” Niumatalolo added.

Niumatalolo has grown weary of answering questions about when college football might resume. He is not even attempting to plan for the next steps with regard to organized team activities because no one knows when the Brigade of Midshipmen will return to the Naval Academy.

“I’m not going to have 1,000 different scenarios in my brain. That would be ludicrous and pointless,” he said. “None of us know anything about what the future holds. This virus is so broad-sweeping and unknown. Whenever they tell us we can start, we’ll attack it. Whenever we get back, we’ll find a way to get it done.”

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