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Army-Air Force football game is postponed after a coronavirus outbreak at the Air Force Academy

The stands at West Point's Michie Stadium were temporarily empty hours before a game in 2018, but this Saturday they will remain empty thanks to the postponement of the Army-Air Force game.

STARS AND STRIPES

By KEN MCMILLAN | Middletown Times Herald-Record | Published: November 5, 2020

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WEST POINT, N.Y. (Tribune News Service) — The COVID-19 pandemic has claimed another Army football game, and this is a big one.

An outbreak of the coronavirus at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, has forced the postponement of the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy game at West Point on Saturday morning. A sell-out in non-COVID years, no fans other than West Point cadets were going to be permitted inside Michie Stadium. The game was going to be televised by CBS.

"We are disappointed to postpone this game," said Air Force director of athletics Nathan Pine, "but the health and safety of our cadets, staff and the community continues to be our number one priority at the Academy. Due to the upward trends in our COVID numbers across the campus, we have paused all intercollegiate team activities."

Pine said efforts are being made to re-schedule the contest but that appears very unlikely this fall due to the unavailability of open dates.

The Colorado Springs Gazette was reporting that as many as seven Air Force players would be unavailable for the contest. A source said the Pentagon called the game off, despite pleas to play from officials of both schools.

A source told the Times Herald-Record there are 110 cadets quarantined on the West Point post due to COVID tracing of other individuals but with no cadets testing positive. Another source said football players have already been moved out of the barracks and to a local hotel in order to socially distance — the Army football team has for years sequestered at hotels on Friday nights in advance of Saturday home games but this is different, the source said.

Lt. Col. Chris Ophardt, a West Point spokesman, confirmed that the football team began sequestering at a hotel on Friday.

Ophardt said on Monday, before any concerns arose about the Air Force game, there was a small uptick in COVID-19 cases among West Point cadets.

As a result, cadets for now are not allowed to have any visitors in their barracks. Only their roommates can be there.

Also, meals are being staggered in the cadet mess hall for the roughly 4,000-member Corps of Cadets, and other eating places on post, such as Grant Hall, are being limited to takeout service only.

Ophardt would not be more specific about the number of cadets being diagnosed with COVID-19, citing Pentagon rules.

As long as the virus doesn't reach into the Army squad, the Black Knights would next play on Saturday, Nov. 14, at Tulane.

There are at least seven Football Bowl Subdivision games off the schedule this weekend. Postponed games include Tulsa at Navy, Louisiana Tech at North Texas and Louisville at Virginia, and canceled games include Purdue at Wisconsin, Florida International at Texas El Paso and Washington at California.

Another source said Army is trying to fill the open date. Tulsa will not be a last-minute replacement, per a school athletics spokesman.

The Commander-in-Chief's Trophy series has been contested since 1972 when the three service academies agreed to meet annually. The winner of two games between Army, Navy and Air Force takes possession of the trophy. Air Force beat Navy, 40-7, on Oct. 3. With a win over Army, the Falcons would have claimed the Trophy for the 21st time and first since 2016.

This is a crushing blow for all involved. Army coach Jeff Monken has been quoted regularly throughout his seven seasons of the critical importance of winning the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy, and this week was no different.

"Obviously, this week is a big game for us," Monken said at his Tuesday press conference. "We haven't had a bigger game this year than the one we're going to play this weekend. I know our guys are excited for the opportunity and certainly what's at stake when we play the academy games to earn the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy. It's always a great game and always a tremendous battle and hopefully we'll play well enough this Saturday that we can make it a battle again."

Army lost another high-profile contest in September when COVID tracing was linked back to the Brigham Young football team. BYU officials contacted their counterparts at West Point just as Army was wrapping up a win over Louisiana Monroe on Sept. 12, prompting a postponement of the Sept. 19 contest at Michie Stadium. Army athletics officials sought to find a replacement opponent for that date but to no avail, mostly due to the short notice. As it turned out, BYU lost only the Army game and resumed play the following week.

Army kept open the possibility of re-scheduling BYU, perhaps for the open date of Nov. 28, but the Black Knights usually keep open the two Saturdays prior to the Navy game, which is set for Dec. 12 in Philadelphia.

That may have been fortuitous for Army because BYU, ranked No. 9 in the AP poll, is unbeaten through seven contests, posting huge margins of victories in six of them. Army's only 2020 contest vs. an AP Top 25 team was a 24-10 loss at then No. 14 Cincinnati — the Bearcats (5-0) have since moved up to No. 6. Army has lost its last 49 contests against Top-25 teams.

Re-scheduling the Air Force game may be near impossible, again due to COVID. The pandemic originally led Mountain West Conference officials to cancel the fall 2020 season, though Air Force — like Army and Navy — remained committed to the Commander-in-Chief series and agreed to retain the service academy dates.

Like the Big Ten, Pac 12 and Mid-America conferences, the Mountain West reversed course on Sept. 25 and announced it would play a league schedule starting Oct. 24. As a result, that left Air Force with no open dates between Oct. 24 and Dec. 3, removing the possibility of re-scheduling with Army on Nov. 28 or Dec. 5. Army will likely play a Pac 12 Conference team in the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, La., on the evening of Dec. 26, so the Dec. 19 date is also highly doubtful.

The only other option would be playing the Air Force game in the spring, and that would be highly unlikely.

Air Force has played Army since 1959 and Navy since 1960 but not every season until 1972.

Army athletic director Mike Buddie said he received word from Pine at 10:45 a.m. Buddie engaged in talks with Superintendent Lt. Gen. Darryl Williams about finding solutions but none could be found.

"We exhausted every opportunity to play this, we exhausted every possibility," Buddie said. "It all went away in two hours."

Buddie said West Point offered testing and lodging and even offered to play in Colorado.

Buddie said there is still an opportunity to find an open date but Air Force would have to work out a deal with the Mountain West Conference to move games to make it happen.

"Hopefully we find a way to get it done but we don't want to endanger the Navy game, which is our crown jewel," Buddie said.

Army coach Jeff Monken was very disappointed over the cancellation and questioned the motives behind it.

"They felt they didn't have enough guys, whether it be COVID or not having enough guys due to injury," Monken said.

Monken said his "eyes bugged out like Roger Rabbit," when he was told of the news.

"What do you mean they won't play?!" Monken told Buddie.

Monken said, like him, the players were "disappointed and ticked off" when he broke the news.

kmcmillan@th-record.com

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