It’s one thing to play a football season pandemic-perverted and calendar-backward, to play from winter to spring rather than summer to winter, from training in the cold and edging toward the heat rather than the other way around which everyone and his team physician prefers. It’s another thing to […]
It’s one thing to play a football season pandemic-perverted and calendar-backward, to play from winter to spring rather than summer to winter, from training in the cold and edging toward the heat rather than the other way around which everyone and his team physician prefers. It’s another thing to do that and wind up playing a national semifinal in May in the hot innards of Texas.
So while the path might seem uncluttered for a perennial stalwart such as James Madison once the giant North Dakota State got shooed from the FCS playoff bracket last weekend in a quarterfinal at Sam Houston by 24-20, well, to paraphrase a sage: Not so rapidly. If the No. 3 seed Dukes (7-0) could win in Huntsville, Tex., about 73 miles up Interstate 45 from Houston against No. 2 seed Sam Houston (8-0), that will count as a feat no matter how steep and stout the James Madison culture has become.
“Here in Harrisonburg, we’re hitting mid-70s, low 80s, and its warm, but it’s a different type of ‘warm’ in Texas,” Bryan Schneider, the James Madison head trainer, said in a telephone interview. He spoke of the forecast temperature, which is 86, called it “a thicker heat,” said it “feels like in the 90s,” and said, “That’s a whole other ballgame,” especially as the 2021 Dukes aren’t acclimatized.
He knows all this in part because he hails from Central Texas, and for football in the heat, it’s always helpful to have one of those around.
Schneider and his staff — two assistants, six student trainers, eight students who help out on the non-training tasks — have been holding more meetings than usual with more topics than usual and more worries than usual.
James Madison’s football team is set for the first of its two 2021 seasons. Just roll with it.
“We don’t just have to worry about cramps,” he said at one point. “We have to worry about soft-tissue injury,” and he reeled off some of those with, “You’re looking at Achilles, calves, hamstrings, quads, hip flexors, groins.” He said, “I tell my student trainers all the time: Pushing fluids is more than about preventing cramps, it’s about preventing injury.”
Don’t forget preparing for heat illnesses and heat emergencies. He hasn’t (forgotten).
So in an eccentric season in a century getting ever hotter, he’s talking about “putting a good hydration method together,” with “proper supplementation before practices” and “a lot of different products we utilize.” He’s deploying phrases like “pregame IVs potentially,” and “halftime IVs potentially.” He’s talking “cold towels” in the tent on the sideline, and he’s absolutely talking electrolytes. He’s saying, “You don’t want to start in a deficit,” about “making sure we don’t go down there with half a tank or three-quarters of a tank.”
He said, “I think ideally, you train in the heat, and then you transition to cool because adapting to the heat is a lot harder than adapting to cold because with cold, I can put layers on.”
Of course, nobody has thought ideally for about 14 months now. For another detail, the coronavirus pandemic has mandated that for the three-hour flight to Houston and the one-hour bus ride from, the Dukes will not eat or drink because it’s wiser to remain masked.
Here’s another reality people seldom considered pre-pandemic: In a normal season, as temperatures get a little lower, team physicians get a little bit happier.
“You look forward to, as a team physician, (how) cramping becomes less of an issue as you go on in the season,” said Dr. Cameron Straughn, who fills that role for his alma mater.
“Honestly,” he said, “I do think it will be a little bit harder,” soon adding, “What we’re really dealing with here, we haven’t played in the heat.” To find a time the program had, he ventured back to early 2019 at FBS West Virginia (an impressive 20-13 loss) or early 2018 at FBS North Carolina State (an impressive 24-13 loss). He emphasized that the body maintenance matters through the whole week, that nutrition-wise, electrolyte-wise and all of the above, “What you’ve done Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday absolutely plays into what happens Friday, Saturday.”
Of course, they also haven’t had a whole week.
Their 34-21 win over North Dakota, in Harrisonburg, with quarterback Cole Johnson’s 14-for-17 passing, Antwane Wells Jr.’s seven catches for 143 yards and two touchdowns, and mainstay running back Percy Agyei-Obese’s 128 rushing yards and two touchdowns, began at 6 p.m. — on Sunday. As second-season head coach Curt Cignetti told reporters this week, “Our graduate assistants started right away after the game with the film breakdowns, and as a staff we came in early Monday and put the previous game behind us. We didn’t even watch it, and went right to Sam Houston.”
Oh, they also had a graduation, as those remain important. “They had an athletic graduation yesterday night,” Agyei-Obese said on Tuesday, “consisting of lacrosse, baseball and football. So we went there, had our own little thing going on. It was exciting. Our families were there … It wasn’t too big. It was something very homey. I really enjoyed it.” The senior from Oakdale High in Frederick, Md., said he felt “ecstatic” over it and said, “It’s still unbelievable to me. I’m like so excited, and I worked so hard for this degree. I’m glad to be, I guess, a JMU alum,” as if just getting used to the thought.
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Adding to all that, James Madison hasn’t won a road playoff game since 2016, when it scored a win as profound as any win anybody anywhere got in the 2010s: at North Dakota State, by 27-17, in an FCS semifinal, causing the Bison’s only miss amid eight hits of national titles from 2011-12 to 2019-20. A meeting between James Madison and Sam Houston State means a meeting between two programs North Dakota State has dismissed seven times in playoffs along its long trail of wreckage, including a 28-20 win over James Madison in the title game of January 2020, piloted by Bison quarterback Trey Lance on his way to other spotlights.
Sympathy for the heat-bound Dukes does have its limits, of course. As Ajyei-Obese said, “Everyone has the right mentality. We all know what needs to be done. We all know everyone needs to do their part especially this week with the quick turnaround from this past Sunday’s game.”
James Madison has gone to three of the past four championship games, winning once (2016) and losing twice to no-need-to-mention-again-here. The team doc himself spoke of the usual big-game adrenaline factor and said, “They prepare the guys very well for those environments. It’s a hard thing for a young man to step into. The culture of playing in big games has become a thing at JMU.”
It’s just that the culture of playing in big games has gone funky this year, even beyond the game cancellations in March (one) and early April (two). If the Dukes can advance — South Dakota State plays Delaware in the other semifinal — their season will end on May 16 in Frisco, Texas, near Dallas, in the final. Then the normal calendar shows good, old summer conditioning for 2021-22 beginning on June 7. Do spare a thought for Schneider, who said, “If we do what we’re supposed to do in both seasons, we’ll have played  football games in 12 months. Think about that.”