New Mexico State University athletics is facing a spring semester like no other as it is one of the few schools in the country that is playing “home” games out of state.
As the athletics department attempts to return to a sense of normalcy amid the COVID-19 pandemic, abiding by the state’s public health regulations has proven to be a challenge for students and staff.
Mario Moccia, NMSU’s athletic director, explained that these restrictions made it impossible for students to practice.
“With Doña County being in the red, you could only practice with four people and a coach with no contact,” Moccia said.
According to NMSU assistant athletics director, Charlie Hurley, NMSU and UNM are the only two schools in the country that have to play home games on the road. While NMSU athletes are now able to practice on campus, they are traveling out of state to places like Texas and Arizona to host competitions.
Despite these hardships, Hurley, explained that the department’s goal is to make sure its athletes have the same opportunities as their peers across the country.
The University of Texas in El Paso has opened its doors to NMSU athletes by allowing them to use the Don Haskins Center, University Field and its other sports facilities.
The volleyball team traveled to Tucson, Arizona, for its first two home games, and the basketball team was relocated to Phoenix at the start of the season. Hurley explained El Dorodo High School in El Paso later assisted by hosting men’s and women’s basketball.
On Feb. 21, the NMSU football team played its first official game since November 2019, and will be playing its second and final game of the season on March 7 at the Sun Bowl Stadium in El Paso.
Freshman volleyball player, Kaitlin Espiritu, explained the team was concerned early on in the semester about how they would do against other teams.
“We’ve had to travel a lot and in the beginning we weren’t even allowed to practice or play in NMSU,” Espiritu said. “It definitely has affected the way that we practice and also how much we practice. We were actually really nervous about this season because so many other teams have had so much more practice time than we have.”
Hurley says the athletics department staff are doing whatever they can to make sure student athletes can play while staying as safe as possible. Athletes are tested for COVID-19 at least three times a week and must pass a rapid test before being allowed to leave for a competition.
“We are testing close to 1,000 athletes per week and our positivity rate has been the same for the first four weeks, 0.4” Moccia said.
Two basketball games and the opening baseball series were canceled due to positive COVID-19 results according to Hurley. The department also enforces social distancing and wearing masks, even while playing.
Espiritu explained her team has been dedicated to playing, and credits safety precautions off the court for keeping them COVID-free. She added that staff also do everything they can to limit the spread, even switching out and sanitizing the volleyballs between plays.
Hurley explained mental health is an important aspect for the department, too, as NMSU athletes balance schoolwork and training while traveling even more often than usual.
“We are all proud of our student athletes and what they are doing to just make sure they are able to compete because this is part of what they came to school for,” Hurley said. “It’s so difficult they can’t have that normal college life everyone is used to.”
Espiritu agrees, saying her freshman year at NMSU has not been the college experience everyone told her about.
“It’s your freshman experience that is supposed to be super fun and meet new people,” Espiritu said. “Now that you really can’t go out and do things my day consists of just class and practice.”
While continuing athletics during COVID-19 has been difficult, Hurley said athletes seem excited to be playing again.
“I have definitely noticed everybody is a lot more positive and happier to be out playing and doing what they want to do, but doing it in a safe manner, too,” Hurley said.
The NMSU athletics department also continues to keep fans informed about upcoming games, scores and even streams all Aggie games live on the official NMSU athletics website.