The Maryland football program canceled Saturday’s home game against Big Ten rival Michigan State, citing an increase Thursday in the number of players and staff members who have tested positive for the coronavirus.
The school announced that 15 more players and seven staff members had tested positive with every individual currently in designated isolation spaces. One of those staff members is head coach Mike Locksley, who said he began to experience common cold-like symptoms Monday night and self-reported those symptoms to Dr. Yvette Rooks, assistant director at the University Health Center.
“It is a surprise because I tried to practice safety measures – wearing a mask, social distancing,” Locksley said. “We’re just continuing to try to fight this thing and move forward as best we can.”
Dr. Rooks said there was an improvement in case numbers Thursday morning and that she could envision the players being able to participate in a conditioning or exercise session this weekend if that trend continues. Athletic director Damon Evans and Locksley said that the team is determined to return to the field and attempt to finish even a truncated season.
“Our goal is to get back out there,” Evans said during a news conference Thursday. “I want to be clear with that, but we want to get back in the safest possible manner and make sure that we’re looking out for the health, safety and wellness of our student-athletes. So we’re committed to getting back, we’re committed to doing things to get everything under control so that our student-athletes in football can get back to doing what they love to do, and that’s playing this game.”
The cancellation marks the second straight for the Terps, who were forced to pull out of a game against No. 3 Ohio State on Saturday at Maryland Stadium in College Park after the university revealed Nov. 11 that eight players had tested positive for COVID-19. The game against Michigan State is the 15th at the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision level postponed or canceled this week, and the 78th since Aug. 26.
Dr. Rooks said the number of positive cases within the team actually went down over the weekend before rising again earlier in the week. She said those who tested positive have exhibited symptoms such as fever, cough and congestion.
Asked about the effectiveness of contact tracing, Dr. Rooks replied, “I’m going to be pretty blunt about it. We have three sources that have led to all of our cases, and to protect identities, I will just say that contact tracing has been beneficial.”
Since that Nov. 11 announcement, the school has suspended all football activities, and players and coaches were moved to an area hotel last weekend in an attempt to contain further infection. Players and coaches were permitted to vacate the hotel on Sunday morning, but have not been cleared medically to return to practice, which was canceled Thursday for the fourth consecutive day.
Thursday’s announcement comes as the state reported 2,910 new coronavirus cases, by far the highest daily total recorded so far. The state has now reported 2,000 or more new cases in four of the past six days, and 1,000 or more virus cases for 16 straight days.
Evan said the school had braced itself for a potential infection.
“We knew that going into this, this was uncertain,” he said. “If you add up all of the science with this virus, as we go across the country, it’s really on an uptick right now. So our goal was to make sure that if we decided to get back to participating and competing which we did as a conference and an institution, we put in the appropriate medical guidelines and protocols, and I believe that we have done that.”
The football team briefly paused its workouts in early July after nine individuals tested positive for COVID-19, and the school suspended all athletic activities in early September after returning 46 positive tests affecting 10 teams. The university announced last week that 1,510 on-campus PCR screening tests were conducted for student-athletes across all sports between Sept. 30 and Nov. 10, and ten student-athletes tested positive.
The Terps (2-1) had been scheduled to meet the Spartans (1-3) at Maryland Stadium on Saturday at noon. Maryland sits in third place in the Big Ten’s East Division, trailing No. 9 Indiana (4-0) and the Buckeyes (3-0).
Michigan State coach Mel Tucker expressed his wishes for a speedy recovery for the Terps’ infected players and coaches.
“The health and safety of our student-athletes, coaches and staff remains our top priority,” he said in a statement distributed by a team spokesperson. “While we are disappointed we won’t be able to compete this Saturday, we certainly understand the situation and hope that Maryland can get back on the field soon. I want to thank our medical staff for everything they have done for our program all year long. We must remain diligent in following all of our safety protocols in order to give us an opportunity to play.”
Per Big Ten conference protocols, players who tested positive for the coronavirus must sit out at least 14 days from their original tests to get screened for any cardiac impact from the virus. Once they are cleared, they are required to wait another seven days so that they can practice and condition and re-acclimate their bodies to the rigors of the sport.
Also, the Terps cannot afford to lose another game from their initial eight-game schedule if they hope to qualify for the Big Ten championship game. But if the average number of conference games played by all teams were to slip below six, teams that played within two games of the average number would be considered.
Big Ten Network football analyst Glen Mason said the coronavirus has added another degree of angst to the job duties of a coach.
“If you’re a college football coach, you get into a season, and you have to worry about your team, you have to worry about your injuries, you have to worry about academic problems, or you have to worry about discipline problems,” said Mason, who served as head coach at Minnesota, Kansas and Kent State. “But now you put this COVID thing on it, and you try to do your best to manage it, but you absolutely can’t control it.”
Maryland’s situation is similar to what happened at Wisconsin last month. The Badgers were forced to cancel games against Nebraska on Oct. 31 and Purdue on Nov. 7 after 30 members — 17 players and 13 staff — had tested positive since Oct. 21. But after a drastic reduction, the team was allowed to return to the field and defeated Michigan, 49-11, on Saturday.
The Terps’ next game is scheduled for Saturday, Nov. 28 at Indiana. A kickoff time has yet to be announced.
Dr. Rooks said the university will continue to be cautious in its monitoring of health environment surrounding the players.
“We’re really looking at our numbers so that we’re able to put a team out there that is going to be safe,” she said. “I can’t predict the future. It’s a day-by-day process, and I’m in communication with my athletic director, our president and our head coach.”
Locksley said the team would probably need only two practices — either on separate days or two in one day — to be prepared physically to play a game as long as the players’ conditioning levels are sufficient.
Locksley said many players, their parents, and coaches are committed to returning sometime this season.
“We made the decision to move forward, and we feel comfortable that we have processes in place that allow us to go out and play this game safely,” he said. “I think it’s good for our players, I think it’s good for our program to continue to move forward. Everyone again has individual decisions that they can make, and I can tell you that our team, they all understand where we are, and they feel comfortable. We had conversations with the parents, and everybody’s on board that we have the things in place from a protocol standpoint to keep their child safe.”