University of Wyoming true freshman quarterback Levi Williams, left, throws the ball Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2019 at the University of Arizona. The Wyoming Cowboys beat the Georgia State Panthers 38-17 in the Arizona Bowl. Wyoming Tribune Eagle/file

LARAMIE – Following a picture-perfect afternoon in Tucson, Arizona, the sky was truly the limit.

The University of Wyoming football team had thoroughly dismantled Georgia State 38-17 in the Arizona Bowl on New Year’s Eve. The Cowboys might have entered the matchup having lost three of four games without starting quarterback Sean Chambers, but they left the desert feeling like a team that could beat just about anyone.

Close losses to conference rivals Boise State, Utah State and Air Force to end the 2019 season left a sour taste in UW players’ and coaches’ mouths. Following the fireworks display they put on for fans in Arizona, the Cowboys liked their chances in 2020. This was their year.

Chambers and Levi Williams, the latter of whom accounted for four touchdowns against Georgia State in his first start, both returned under center. The conference’s leading rusher, Xazavian Valladay, would lead the way for whoever lined up at quarterback, as would a pair of top-notch runners behind him. The entire starting offensive line was back for more, ready to pave the way for an offense destined to be explosive.

And then there was the defense, among the top units nationally a season ago, ready to be great again, despite losing stars like Logan Wilson, Cassh Maluia and Alijah Haliburton. If there’s one thing teams led by coach Craig Bohl do, it’s play defense, having finished in the top-15 nationally in points allowed two of the past three seasons.

There was a strong feeling that 2019’s 8-5 finish was just the tip of the iceberg. Running back Trey Smith didn’t mince words over the summer: UW was the team to beat, and the country was going to learn a lot about football at 7,220 feet.

“I believe we’re going to win the conference championship,” Smith said. “I just have that amount of faith in my guys.”

But before they ever got the chance to prove themselves, the Pokes had the rug pulled out from under their cleats.

On Aug. 10, the Mountain West announced it was postponing all fall sports, including football, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The goal was to hopefully play those sports in the spring of 2021.

There were, of course, doubts about the feasibility of a spring football season, leading some to question whether the Cowboys would play football at all this academic year.

But after having seemingly lost everything, UW once again finds its hopes and dreams within reach.

What a difference a month makes.

In a stunning 180-degree turn from the announcement that shook Laramie to its core, the MW announced late Thursday night it will play an eight-game football season this fall, starting the weekend of Oct. 24 and culminating in a conference title game Dec. 19.

Bohl admittedly didn’t take the news of the initial postponement well. But in a Zoom call Friday with the media, all he could do was smile. His team had completed its first practice, done in smaller groups to limit potential coronavirus exposure.

Bohl’s faith in things working out hadn’t been misplaced after all.

“I don’t know if my wife has ever seen me happier,” Bohl said. “When we were told that we were going to get postponed, it was very difficult … (but I) always kind of kept some hope out there alive.”

Change of plans

Chambers returned to Laramie before most of his teammates did for one reason and one reason only: to be fully prepared for a 2020 season that had already placed a boulder-sized chip on his broad shoulders.

The redshirt sophomore quarterback missed the end of his first two seasons as a Cowboy with leg injuries. The latest setback was a knee injury suffered as he dove for the end zone against Nevada in late October. He missed the final five games of UW’s season. After a 6-2 start with Chambers under center, the Pokes somewhat limped to the finish line, going 2-3 to end 2019.

Eager to prove doubters wrong, Chambers was as excited as anyone to play in 2020. After students were sent home in March, Chambers came back to Laramie to train and rehab. A potential quarterback competition with Williams only added more fuel to the fire.

So when life was put on hold for the Cowboys, it was a tough pill to swallow.

“I came back from quarantine, there was nobody here in Laramie. I had a plan, and I had a goal of getting healthy, and I achieved that goal,” Chambers said. “To have the season stripped away, when I had that goal to get healthy for a season, it’s a terrible feeling. It felt like I did all that for nothing.”

It has been a rollercoaster few months for college football teams around the country, who have been stuck in limbo from the moment sports first shut down in March. Following the stunning postponement of the NBA after a positive test on the Utah Jazz canceled a March 11 game against the Oklahoma City Thunder, the NCAA made the unprecedented decision to cancel all sports for the remainder of the spring, including the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments. UW students, athletes included, were sent home for the remainder of the semester.

Time was seemingly on schools’ side as far as fall sports were concerned, though. Over the next five months, football programs went from their as-advertised schedules to depleted schedules to no schedules at all.

Wyoming was originally set to begin its season Sept. 5 at home against FCS powerhouse Weber State. UW’s September slate of games included highly anticipated matchups at Louisiana and Ball State and a home tilt with former MW rival Utah.

Throughout the summer, UW athletics director Tom Burman and Bohl remained optimistic a football season would happen, despite alarming COVID numbers in college athletics programs around the country. UW players arrived back on campus in early June to begin workouts, having also lost the benefit of spring football.

Positive COVID results were not uncommon around the MW. Among the schools hit hardest were Colorado State and Boise State. The Rams shut down football activities in late July due to eight positives, according to ESPN. The Broncos, meanwhile, put football on hold twice in June: first due to positive tests in athletics, and the second time due to a wider campus shutdown stemming from positive or presumed tests, per the Idaho Statesman.

UW recorded zero positive COVID test results within its athletics department from early June, when athletes and staff returned to campus, through the middle of August, an impressive feat that few programs could similarly boast.

Much of that was due to the team policing itself, according to junior linebacker Chad Muma. Coaches could only do so much. It was up to the players to make the right choices.

“We were all committed to a purpose greater than ourselves,” Muma said.

In early July, Burman told WyoSports he believed there was a “50-50” chance the season would happen as originally constructed, and the program was still planning to host Weber State.

That was all scrapped by the middle of the month, however, when conferences started eliminating nonconference opponents from their schedules. The Pac-12, home to Utah, announced July 9 it was playing a conference-only slate, setting the stage for what would be a strange few weeks in scheduling.

With change inevitable, the Mountain West released a revised schedule Aug. 5: eight conference games and up to two nonconference matchups for each of its teams, kicking off Sept. 26, an attempt to provide flexibility and additional preparation time.

On Aug. 7, the Big Sky, home to Weber State, announced it was moving its football schedule to the spring, following suit with the majority of football programs and conferences in the FCS, Division II and Division III. The FBS was the only division still trying to make fall ball work.

Then came the gut punch.

On Aug. 8, the MAC became the first FBS conference to fully suspend its fall athletics slate and announce an intention to play in the spring. Two days later, the MW did the same, postponing its fall sports indefinitely with hopes of potentially taking the field in early 2021.

Even after doing all the right things to maintain safety, UW found itself on the wrong end of a historic decision.

“Since the start of the pandemic, our membership and staff have been working diligently to prepare for a fall sports season,” MW Commissioner Craig Thompson said in a statement in August. “We were hopeful we could carefully and responsibly conduct competition as originally scheduled, with essential protocols in place. However, numerous external factors and unknowns outside our control made this difficult decision necessary.”

The Big Ten and Pac-12 conferences followed suit over the next few days, creating what appeared to be an alliance of teams with eyes on spring football as the SEC, ACC, Big 12 and others trudged forward with their “normal” fall schedules.

But the Big Ten shocked many by reversing course Sept. 16 with an announcement of an eight-game, conference-only schedule beginning in late October. The change of heart came due in large part to advances in rapid COVID-19 testing that have occurred in the past month.

“It really started to turn in the last couple days (for the MW),” Thompson said in a news conference Friday. “(Rapid testing) was really the game-changer.”

The MW has partnered with Quest Diagnostics to issue rapid testing for all athletes, coaches, staff and trainers. Tests will be administered three times a week, and results must be recorded prior to each game.

The specific test the MW will use is an antigen test, which analyzes proteins in a sample that is taken from the nose or throat, per WebMD. It is not as accurate as a PCR test, but it is much quicker and cheaper. While daily antigen testing would be preferable, Thompson said the conference is comfortable with it being done three times a week.

If someone does test positive via antigen test, that individual will take a PCR test, as well.

“We’re using an antigen test that is actually new to the market, through Quest labs, that is actually really sensitive and really specific,” University of Nevada Dr. Tony Islas said. “By us doing it multiple times a week, we’re kind of hedging our bets in our favor that we’ll catch a positive.”

The cost of testing, which Thompson said will be “well into the millions,” will be covered by the MW by way of a reserve fund.

Fan capacity at stadiums in the conference will be determined by each university based on local health and safety regulations. Burman said Friday that UW will have fans, though the specific amount has yet to be determined.

An updated schedule for teams will be released in the near future, Thompson said. He also admits he doesn’t expect all 12 teams in the conference to be able to play all eight games based on what has happened in terms of postponements in college football thus far. Because the conference will play eight games in eight weeks, there is no room for postponements. Games unable to be played on their scheduled dates will be canceled.

Protocols for potential schedule interruptions and specifics of testing/health guidelines are still being worked out. The NCAA suggests players who have tested positive or have potentially been exposed to COVID-19 quarantine for two weeks.

“It was a collective Mountain West decision,” Thompson said. “But individual institutions might have to adjust.”

“No place I’d rather be”

Kaycee Stevenson admits she spent more than her fair share of time mourning the loss of what she thought was her own football finale.

Stevenson is the head drum major for UW’s Western Thunder Marching Band. Having grown up in Rock Springs, Stevenson has bled brown and gold her entire life. She’s been in band for 13 or 14 years and in marching band for almost a decade. Upon realizing music was her passion, Stevenson set her eyes on the ultimate prize: she was going to be the head drum major at UW.

Standing on the ladder at midfield, conducting the school fight song, all while having the best seat in the house to watch her beloved Pokes – what could possibly be better?

“I set that goal, ‘That’s exactly what I want to do,’” Stevenson said. “It was an absolute dream come true.”

When Stevenson’s brother told her the season had been postponed back in August, Stevenson was crushed. As a fifth-year senior who will be student teaching in the spring, the fall of 2020 was her last chance to watch the Cowboys while leading the marching band. A hypothetical spring season was a definite lost season.

There was a moment where Stevenson thought the last time she would put on her uniform had already happened down in Tucson.

“I was a wreck all night. I couldn’t stop crying,” Stevenson said. “I wasn’t ready to say goodbye.”

When UW players take the field in late October after having their collective hearts ripped out just months prior, it means something to Stevenson and people outside of the High Altitude Performance Center.

Former UW defensive back and Chicago Bears safety Tashaun Gipson, now in his ninth NFL season, is a Poke through and through. He tells everyone within earshot that will listen what his time in Laramie meant to him.

As an underrecruited high school player from Texas, Gipson has never forgotten that it was former coach Joe Glenn who offered him the chance to play with his older brother, Marcell, also a defensive back, and jumpstarted what has been a stellar NFL career.

Gipson admits he is a big city kind of guy, but Laramie nonetheless captured his heart. He watches every UW game he can, despite all the travel and chaos being an NFL starter entails. Heck, his fiancée is from Wyoming.

The football program has grown leaps and bounds since he roamed the secondary from 2008-11. Yet he still feels a distinct fondness for the stadium and town that helped him become the person he is.

“These are things I’m going to be able to cherish for the rest of my life … I’m a proud Cowboy,” Gipson said. “It’s exciting to see those guys. You see them on TV a lot more. It would be exciting to see those guys put on out there for the brand.”

A triumphant return to War Memorial Stadium isn’t just about the 100 or so players on the team’s current roster. It’s about alumni of the university, the players that came before and the city of Laramie itself. It’s about uniting a state that spans more than 97,000 square miles with a single common thread: Saturday afternoons watching Cowboys football in the fall.

Stevenson might not have a full band at the stadium this fall, pending local health protocols. But for the first time in months, she and the rest of Cowboy nation have hope.

“It’s hard to put into words what Cowboy football and Wyoming athletics has done for me and means to me. All of my biggest memories have revolved around Wyoming athletics,” she said. “There’s no other place I’d rather be on Saturday than supporting the boys on the field.”

There is still work to be done in what is sure to be a bizarre season. It’s not a slam dunk the season will finish to completion, and the onus is still on players to do the right things to ensure the safety of the team.

A few players have opted not to play this season, though Bohl declined to give names or the exact number. “A couple” players have tested positive for COVID-19 in recent weeks, though they are on the back end of their quarantines, Bohl added.

Practice will go on as it normally does, for the most part, though there are a handful of factors outside football that will come into play this fall. Blocking and tackling drills are only part of the equation in 2020.

“It’s going to take a great deal of discipline. We told them what things to do, where to go,” Bohl said. “Discipline is going to come into play.”

Back in August, Chambers and redshirt senior defensive end Garrett Crall were tasked by Bohl with telling the team its season was off. Chambers said it was among the most difficult moments he’d ever endured. All that hard work was seemingly being flushed away.

When the pendulum finally swung the other way late Thursday night, Chambers had just one thought. He and the Cowboys were waiting on the sidelines no more.

Their championship aspirations are still in tow.

“The first thing that ran through my mind was, ‘It’s about time.’” Chambers said. “I’m ready to go. I think the team is ready to go. We’ve been yearning to play.”

Michael Katz covers the University of Wyoming for WyoSports. He can be reached at mkatz@wyosports.net or 307-755-3325. Follow him on Twitter at @michaellkatz.

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