CSU Pueblo football's spring practices continue even with Spring Game cancelled due to COVID-19 protocols

Apr. 13—John Wristen has been smiling these days. Besides, he and his football coaching staff have been doing what they love.

And that is teaching the game and preparing their team for a run at a national championship.

The head football coach at Colorado State University Pueblo has been on the field for two months with his team during spring ball.

While that normally concludes with the annual spring game at the Neta & Eddie DeRose ThunderBowl, nothing has been normal this past year.

Due to COVID-19 protocols, this year's spring game won't be played. Instead, the team will conduct practice from 2:30-4:30 p.m. on Friday. The athletic department is checking on whether the practice will be open to the public after the county has been moved to level yellow because of a resurgence in COVID-19 cases.

CSU Pueblo Director of Athletics Paul Plinske explained what transpired.

"Since Jan. 4, we have tested (for COVID-19) approximately 8,000 times and had 33 positives in 14 weeks for all athletics," Plinske said. "Every time there's a positive we go through our contact tracing protocol and as a result of contact tracing protocol we have 39 football players in quarantine.

"Those individuals aren't able to practice with us. We have approximately 80 others who are able to practice. We don't have full positions so Coach Wristen and I made the decision that having a spring game without having a chance to have ample practice was not in our best interest.

"Instead, we'll have a practice on Friday and we are going to do some things that are fan-friendly that will culminate the spring."

As one of the top programs in the NCAA Division II ranks over the past decade, the ThunderWolves have been itching to return to the field after the coronavirus pandemic cancelled the 2020 season.

The Pack hasn't played a game since Nov. 30, 2019. That was when Minnesota State Mankato beat them 35-7 in the second round of the NCAA Division II playoffs. The ThunderWolves finished 2019 with an 11-2 record.

Hopefully, that will change this upcoming fall with an 11-game schedule, including nine games in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference.

CSU Pueblo is scheduled to open the season at 6 p.m. Sept. 2 against Texas A&M-Commerce at home. It will travel to Grand Valley (Mich.) State Sept. 11 before opening the conference season Sept. 18 at home against Black Hills (S.D.) State.

The expectations for the 2021 season are already high. With two recruiting classes on the roster in addition to the return of myriad seniors who were presented another year of eligibility by the NCAA because of the coronavirus pandemic, the talent pool runs deep.

"It's been wonderful," Wristen said about getting back to work. "The kids have been awesome. We've been going since Feb. 1 with four weeks in the weight room.

"Since March 1 we've had practices and it's been a lot of fun to get them back on the field. They know the expectations and work ethic we require. They've demonstrated that over time with COVID-19. They didn't sit on the couch but trained on their own, and it shows."

Wristen admitted the past year and half hasn't been normal and said he and his staff have had to adjust on the fly.

"Normally we have seniors graduate and move on but every one of our seniors decided to come back," he said. "It's been great but different.

"We've had to manage them as well as our incoming recruiting class that is very talented. There's only a certain amount of helmets and lockers to go around. That's part of our job, how to managed and get the right numbers."

Last weekend, the team took a trip to Greeley to scrimmage the University of Northern Colorado. Wristen said he learned a lot about his team from that experience.

"One, we found out we're going to have a great team," Wristen said. "Second, we held our own and learned how we need to get better. And three, the kids had a lot of fun doing it."

Wristen believes the team will continue to get better with the practices it has scheduled in wrapping up spring ball.

"We're more concerned with what we're going to do the next (several) practices," he said. "We're going to emphasize fundamentals and how to win championships."

Chieftain interim sports editor Jeff Letofsky can be reached by email at jletofsky@chieftain.com or on Twitter @jeffletofsky