Trying to play a soccer season during a pandemic is scary enough.

But it’s possible that three seasons of play all in one year? And with three different head coaches in a four-month span?

Welcome to the world of Austin Peay.

“Honestly, it’s a blessing to have year-round soccer,” said Cordell Jackson, Austin Peay’s senior defender for America. “It’s something people have always wanted. That’s why you ask for it, and you get it – year-round soccer. It’s an incredible opportunity for us, when last summer we didn’t even know if soccer was coming.

The Governors open their seven-game Ohio Valley Conference season on Sunday against Tennessee Tech (2:30 p.m., ESPN+). This is the first time a soccer game has been played live since the start of the KOVID-19 pandemic on August 29, following a 24-17 loss against Central Arkansas at the kickoff of the Guardian Credit Union FCS game in Montgomery, Alabama.

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Central Arkansas QB Brailyn Smith pulls her pass back from Jack McDonald, who celebrates with a top hat and the staff of Austin Peay.

Markwaz Lovings led the Governors to all three games in the fall of 2020 as interim coach after replacing Mark Hudspeth, who resigned on July 3 for personal reasons after a 20-day hiatus. Austin Peay also played against Pittsburgh and Cincinnati last September, losing both and, like the rest of the CSF brothers, hoping to make it to the spring conference season.

Meanwhile, Austin Peay’s athletics director, Gerald Harrison, has hired a new head coach, with Scotty Walden of Southern Miss. Walden was then interim head coach of Southern Miss and discovered in a popular 2020 thread that he had tested positive for VIDOC-19 the day after a meeting with Harrison in New Orleans in late October.

From that point on, the madness only increased.

Walden was introduced as Austin Peay’s head coach on November 2 last year, and a few weeks later he met one day with his players and coaches involved in the painting project. Harrison couldn’t resist the urge to add fuel to the fire led by his already energetic 31-year-old head coach, doing everything from talking to coaching to leading the offense.

Harrison, who had just learned that the Pac-12 had voted to let his teams play games outside the conferences, called Walden on his cell phone and told him to be ready to travel to Oregon in a week for a game against the Ducks.

“I know it’s fast, but you can’t turn down that much money. They’re going to pay us a million dollars,” Walden told Harrison, trying to keep his composure instead of laughing.

Walden, still on the phone with Harrison, was already yelling at his coaches to get the players together and set up the brushes.

“At that point, I was literally ready to take these guys to the practice field,” Walden said, smiling to himself after falling for Harrison.

“I mean, we didn’t put anything in place. I didn’t even know if we would be able to line up. I wonder if we’re going to play their old offense or our offense or something in between. We weren’t even on the field with them. My mind was racing.

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Harrison couldn’t take it anymore and told Walden he was only joking.

“I’m pretty gullible, but that was not cool of Gerald, not cool at all,” Walden said.

Speaking of chills, it was one of the biggest adjustments for the players as they prepared for the spring season called “spring,” especially with the cold temperatures that prevailed in much of the country.

“Man, it’s winter, 100 percent winter soccer at its best,” Walden said.

Sophomore offensive lineman Bucky Williams said it is surreal to go through a pre-season camp with ice and snow everywhere.

“We train outside when it’s 10 and 15 degrees, and you’re used to training in the preseason when it’s 90 degrees,” Williams said.

The reality is that all routines are disrupted.

Austin Peay players did not know when they would play soccer again after a 55-20 loss against Cincinnati on September 19. The OVC announced in October that it plans to play a spring schedule starting in February, but only “if the pandemic keeps the movement going,” said Commissioner Beth DeBochet.

Knowing that there were no guarantees, the actors carried on. They did their best to stay fit, starting at 6 a.m. in November, keeping their social distance and focusing on defending their 2019 championship, the first in the school’s history for more than 40 years.

“Nobody knew. We didn’t know if it was our last game or when we could play again,” Williams said. “But we were ready.”

In November and December, Walden spent more time talking to his players about the culture he wanted to establish than about the offense he wanted to fast-track.

“It will pay off in the long run. We didn’t want to take a shortcut,” said Walden, who faced the challenge of hiring assistant coaches in November, some of whom were elsewhere midway through the season. “It seemed like we had a different coach every week.”

“We didn’t know if it was our last game or when we could play again. But we were ready.

Bucky Williams, second-year offensive lineman

Walden did not put his players on the field until January, and his first full practice was on January 23. The transition to a fast-paced offense was not easy, especially when he decided to rotate the game every 12 seconds.

“You can’t simulate how fast you’ll be until you actually play in this system,” Williams said. “You can do all the sprints you want, but until you hit the other guy, then line up for 12 seconds and walk away, nothing compares.”

As soon as January practice ended, Austin Peay’s coaches left the practice field in a daze, climbed all four floors of the soccer complex to their offices and began recruiting trips through Zoom.

“We all held our breath as we walked into our offices, put on our clean clothes for video conferences with the recruits, called each other to make sure we had the right names of parents, that we had everything they wanted to specialize in and all the other important details that come up during recruitment,” Walden said.

“It was crazy. There weren’t enough hours in the day.”

The Governors will be using their third different offensive system since Hudspeth’s retirement in July. They play against Tennessee Tech without a quarterback who has already started a college game.

“And all this time, our kids have persevered and stayed together, despite all the setbacks,” Harrison said. “We had five rejections in the fall and now three rejections in the spring. A year ago, I didn’t even know what a rejection was.”

Walden hasn’t had much time to think about it, but he clearly remembers sitting on his couch in Hattiesburg, Mississippi last August watching Austin Peay in that first game of the 2020 season.

Mistake. Film no specified.Austin Peay participated in the first live football game since the start of the KOVID-19 pandemic, a 24-17 loss against Central Arkansas during a Guardian Credit Union game in Montgomery, Ala on August 29. Marvin Gentry-USA Sports

“It was a big deal, the first soccer game of the COVID-19 era,” Walden said. “People were really playing soccer. Hell, everybody was watching. I remember the first play leading to a touchdown, and I think I fell asleep in the second half. I had no idea I’d be coaching Austin Peay here.

“It was different for each of us.” What wasn’t different last year? But we don’t talk enough about the resilience of these kids and the sacrifices they made to make football possible. Our kids have been doing this since August, in the midst of all the change and uncertainty, and have never wavered.

The two CSF teams participating in the championship game will play until mid-May. This means they have about two and a half months before the start of the preseason for the fall of 2021. Austin Peay’s first game is scheduled for September 2 in Chattanooga.

“It’s the background that takes you to where it’s going to be most difficult to navigate,” Harrison said. “That’s where we have to be very careful that the kids have enough free time.” In the good old days, players went home for the summer. They don’t do that anymore. They’re on campus all year. But this year, they’re going home. It’ll be six to eight weeks before they’re completely out of soccer.”

The self-discipline required to play three seasons of soccer in one year is something these players have never experienced.

“You have to live well,” Mr. Williams said. “You have to eat right. You have to stretch. You have to keep your body healthy enough to play three seasons when you don’t normally play more than once a year.

And it doesn’t look like COVID-19 will disappear anytime soon.

Walden has established a steering committee to help manage COVID-19 protocols within the team, with a designated person in charge of each dormitory, apartment complex or home where the players live. The governors have not had a single positive test in three of the last four weeks.

“It’s about keeping people involved and knowing that Sunday soccer will be played as one at the end of the day,” Jackson said.

That’s right, I’m not… Sunday. All but one of the Governors’ games this spring will be on Sunday, ending with a trip to Eastern Illinois on April 11 and the FCS playoffs.

“When you were a kid, you always said you wanted to play on Sunday,” Walden says. “Hey, let’s play on Sunday.”

And when it’s all over, spring and fall this year, Walden thinks he’ll need more than a nap.

“I can win winter, we all can, coaches and players,” Walden said. “But what a journey it’s been, and we can’t wait for it to be over.”

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