'It's football': Sacred Heart kicks off spring season Sunday

It’s been nearly 16 months since the Sacred Heart football team last played a game.

When the Pioneers finally hit the field at noon on Sunday at Duquesne, it’ll have a strange feeling — it is March, after all — but one basic fact remains.

“It feels a little weird playing in the spring, but it’s football,” coach Mark Nofri said. “We’ll play anybody, anywhere. This spring, the kids just want an opportunity to compete and not go two full years (without football).”

The NEC’s spring football season includes four games for each team with two make-up weekends to follow if needed. The top two teams will meet for the NEC championship in April, with the winner gaining the conference’s NCAA automatic qualifier. The FCS tournament will include 16 teams and is planned for April 18-May 15.

Following its opener this weekend, Sacred Heart will host LIU on March 14 and Merrimack on March 21 before wrapping up at Wagner on March 28. Central Connecticut, also a member of the NEC, opted out of the spring season.

One of the unknowns for this week’s opener at Duquesne is how the players will handle being back on the field after going without a game for so long.

“My plan is to make sure they’re prepared and hopefully when they go out there, after the first snap, everything goes according to plan and they get right back on the bike and don’t miss a beat,” Nofri said.

The road to actual football games has been a long one.

The Pioneers had a few full-team workouts before the NEC’s fall season was canceled last summer and players went home for remote learning.

That meant a lot of Zoom meetings during the fall and winter.

SHU students returned to campus in January, but even then, protocols have altered the regular routines

Nofri said the players have handled the changes and challenges well.

“It seems like nothing bothers them and their sole focus is getting better and getting ready to play,” Nofri said. “You have a schedule that you set and you try and stay as close to it as possible, but with COVID and testing and contact tracing and having to change this or not do that, and only having so many kids allowed in the locker room, there’s a lot of logistics.

“They’ve done a phenomenal job of changing on the fly and adjusting to what they have to do to practice, to lift, to run and to be able to play a game.”

The four-game season, though short, will allow players and coaches to get back into full-fledged football mode, and will make the transition to summer training and a possible return to a full 11-game schedule in the fall.

Seniors on the team this season are also eligible to return for another season in the fall if they so choose.

Duquesne, LIU and Wagner are familiar opponents for the Pioneers, who went 2-1 against them in 2019, losing only to Duquesne. SHU and Merrimack have not played each other since 1997, when they were both Division II teams.

For now, Nofri said he has a couple of goals for the spring.

“My goal is to win each and every one of them and try and get the automatic qualifier for the NEC going into the FCS playoffs,” Nofri said. “My goal is also to make sure everybody comes out of this healthy and ready to go in the fall.

“It’s a chance to compete against everybody in our conference and see if we can win an NEC championship. I want to win and the kids want to win.”

david.stewart@hearstmediact.com; @dstewartsports