Four hundred forty-eight days later, after the coronavirus pandemic pushed several lower-division college football seasons into spring, Puget Sound on Saturday became one of 16 Division III teams to kick off.
Still facing the threat that delayed its season, the Tacoma, Wash., school opted to honor Ciari and 15 other seniors on opening day instead of at the home finale, as is traditional.
“I would not believe it one bit,” Ciari said in a Zoom interview when asked whether he could have envisioned the conditions for Saturday’s game against Northwest Conference rival Pacific Lutheran, a season-opening senior day scheduled for early February. “Our last game we were coming off Lewis & Clark, and that was a tough game. To know that I would be waiting for 450 days or something like that, I wouldn’t believe it one bit, but here we are. Here we are, and the world is a crazy place.”
As the sky cleared before afternoon kickoff at Baker Stadium, a live stream of the game showed Loggers players organized into two parallel lines, forming a tunnel from the end zone to the 40-yard line. The team’s 16 seniors gathered near puddles on the surrounding track as a voice over the public address system said, “Welcome to college football in February.”
One by one, each senior ran through the tunnel, greeted by low fives and butt slaps. They rounded their run out of the tunnel and pulled up to a mic where they thanked coaches and family, met by cheers and the occasional “Speech!”
Gone were the flowers, framed jerseys and on-field family photos that characterize some senior days. The coronavirus had already altered the ceremony for Football Bowl Subdivision teams this past fall.
Notre Dame players were greeted by family members on the field after the game rather than before. At Alabama, where Coach Nick Saban was isolated at home following a positive coronavirus test, players’ families were kept in the stands and shown on the video board.
Conference rules prevented Puget Sound fans or families from attending the game, although 4,200 viewers tuned in via live stream.
“I’d like to thank my mom and my dad, who couldn’t be here today, and my family watching at home,” said Ciari, the last player to the mic. “I’d like to thank my boys out here for doing everything right and getting us to this moment.”
Seniors posed for pictures while their teammates began running and stretching. The team then convened near the track for the revival of another program tradition: the pregame entrance in which a player — in Saturday’s case, senior defensive lineman Hayden Baumann — leads the Loggers onto the field while wielding a chain saw.
“That is a real, genuine chain saw,” Ciari said. “We’ve taken the blade off just for safety purposes. We get kind of rowdy around it, and they don’t want us to get hurt, but it is the pride and joy of our program, and it is my favorite part of every Saturday, going out and hearing it roar. That is go time for me on Saturday.”
The Loggers won the game against Pacific Lutheran, 28-20.
It was a key victory for a team looking to improve on its 6-4 record in 2019 and for some seniors, who never expected to play another game in Puget Sound’s maroon jerseys.
Last spring, the coronavirus forced the small private school to transition to remote learning, erasing spring football workouts and vacating the campus into summer. The Northwest Conference postponed fall sports in July and said it would work to reschedule competition in spring, but as some Division III schools in California began to cancel fall sports entirely, Coach Jeff Thomas said Puget Sound developed contingency plans.
“It felt like some dominoes were going against us,” he said via Zoom. “So we’re not going to play in the fall. What can we do safely to make sure that we don’t, quite frankly, cause a covid outbreak on our campus or in our community while at the same time giving the players on our team that experience” of playing?
The conference established a plan for a spring football season by early November. Of its five schools based in Oregon, two opted out and three are planning for exhibition games. Puget Sound will compete against its Washington-based conference members during a four-game season that is supposed to end March 6.
A pair of Puget Sound players tested positive in early January, during a mandatory seven-day quarantine before preseason camp. The two players returned for Saturday’s game.
That episode underscored the precariousness of the delayed season and the importance of Puget Sound’s early senior day, an idea that was inspired by Saturday’s opponent. Pacific Lutheran Coach Brant McAdams, Thomas’s former defensive coordinator, mentioned the idea after he had seen high school football coaches discussing it on Twitter in the fall. McAdams said his team plans to honor its seniors during its Feb. 20 home opener.
“I think that it speaks exactly to the urgency of getting a game in,” Thomas said. “That we’re not going to wait to play later in the semester when it’s mythically going to just magically get better. Let’s take advantage of what we’ve got right now and honor our seniors now.”
Seven conferences in the second-tier Football Championship Subdivision will begin delayed football seasons later this month, and another five are set to kick off in March. A handful of Division II programs played football in the fall.
“This past year and a half has made me realize that I can’t take anything for granted,” Ciari said. “I am incredibly grateful that we had a season and that we have games to look forward to. But I understand that those games aren’t guaranteed.”