The Fort Lewis College football team loaded the bus Thursday morning. A collective sigh of relief and burst of enthusiasm flowed around the Skyhawks.
A week after FLC was forced to cancel its only home date of the three-game spring schedule, the Skyhawks were cleared of their COVID-19 issues to make a trip to play at 5 p.m. Friday against New Mexico Highlands University in Las Vegas, New Mexico.
FLC had eight players test positive for COVID-19 last week and several more went into quarantine, which left the Skyhawks unable to host Western Colorado University. But in the spring finale, FLC will finally get a chance to see what it looks like against a Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference opponent in the Cowboys.
“They all count to me. I want wins, and our team wants wins,” FLC head coach Darrius G. Smith said. “We want this community and this campus to have wins.
“We’ve had a long layoff since the last game, and then you throw in the COVID issues and the contact tracing and the practices we missed and things of that nature. It’s been a new challenge every day.”
FLC’s first spring game came against Division I FCS Dixie State nearly a month ago on March 27. It was a 60-0 road loss for the Skyhawks in a game in which they were paid $20,000 to play. Dixie State has just transitioned from Division II to the D-I level, but the increase in funding and scholarships was evident, as FLC was outmatched in its first game in 400 days and the first under Smith.
“Our biggest takeaway was that we have a lot of work to do,” Smith said. “We realized we probably weren’t as mature as we thought we were as a football team. That’s not really possible to gauge with no game experience coming in. We are aware of what the score was, but we are more disappointed in not executing some of our basic stuff and game plan.”
Now, Smith hopes to get a better chance to evaluate his team going into the summer offseason before a real fall camp opens in August.
“We gotta see if we’ve learned anything and can overcome and implement the things we need to do to improve,” Smith said.
It was transfer quarterback Armon “Bubba” Hickson who got most of the time at QB for FLC at Dixie State. He struggled mightily, going 6-for-25 for 29 yards and one interception along with three fumbles, two that were lost.
Hickson is in a competition with Connor Apodaca, a transfer from the University of Northern Colorado. Apodaca had an injury in training camp going into the Dixie State game, so FLC went with Hickson most of the way. Apodaca did enter in the fourth quarter and went 2-of-5 passing for nine yards. He also fumbled once but was able to recover it.
“In a desire to be real good and step ahead of the competition, I think he pressed more than he should have,” Smith said of Hickson. “We have to realize, I had some guys out there who hadn’t played meaningful football in two or three years. I think at one point in time, Bubba included but the entire time, when the lights came on the stage was too big for us at that time.”
Going into this game, Smith said both QBs are healthy and will share duties.
“We need a good evaluation process,” Smith said. “I can’t shut Bubba down completely. He was going against an FCS team by himself because we didn’t know if we could even play Connor. It’s fair that they both get the same amount of time this week so they can keep the competitive vibe going, both get their feet wet and we make sure we have a game plan for the plays and sets they both like.”
What FLC did like about it’s trip to Utah was the running of Emmanuel Nwosu, who ran 14 times for 69 yards with a long of 14 yards. Brayden Lucero also ran 15 times for 42 yards, though he lost a fumble. Jeff Hansen did not play at Dixie State, but the 2019 season’s leading rusher is expected to be back in pads Friday in New Mexico. The Skyhawks will look to establish that running game some more Friday night.
FLC will be without leading tacklers in Jayden and Dakota Helms, but linebacker Shawn Garcia Jr., a senior from Grand Junction, is expected to be back on the field to give the defense a boost alongside Vincent DeLeo and behind the stout defensive front of Blayke De La Rosa and Oscar Oliva
Highlands hasn’t played a spring contest yet this season, and this will be the lone game of the season for the Cowboys. That leaves FLC mostly guessing at what its opponent will look like. Smith said it will feel like an opening game of a season without being able to know what the tendencies of the opponent will be.
For Smith and FLC defensive coordinator Ed Rifilato, Friday’s trip will be to familiar territory. The two coached together at New Mexico Highlands in the late 1990s, including in 1999 when they won an RMAC championship.
Smith hopes to get a good look at his team and a chance to build going into a critical offseason after so much time between meaningful games following the cancellation of the 2020 fall season.
“I want people to be able to say they saw improvement,” the first-year FLC coach said. “Coming off what we went through against Dixie, we all want to see improvement. I feel confident we will put forth a great effort and represent ourselves well.
“In these times, with what COVID has done, the ability to have sporting events and have people involved, we all feel fortunate for an opportunity to have a game like this in the spring.”