By Jason Pugh, Northwestern State Assistant Athletic Director for Media Relations
NATCHITOCHES – Wednesday’s Southland Conference Football Media Day went where none had ventured before – into the realm of virtual communications.
For head coach Brad Laird, senior wide receiver Gavin Landry and senior linebacker Ja’Quay Pough, the world of Zooms and Webexes has become commonplace since the trio was part of the final face-to-face Northwestern State football team meeting more than four months ago.
“(Four months ago) I didn’t know what Zoom or Webex were, and now I’m a pro at them,” Laird said from his seat behind a laptop in the Stroud Room on NSU’s campus. “Seeing your guys face to face is different.”
It was that feeling that welcomed back the majority of the 2020 Demons when they hit campus July 6, still working through a pandemic that cost them more than half their spring practice sessions and left the 2020 season up in the air for much of the country.
In his annual address to league media, Southland Commissioner Tom Burnett reiterated the conference’s desire to move forward to play the 2020 season as planned.
Between March 13 and Wednesday’s Media Day activities, the Demons faced numerous challenges – both physical and in terms of physical space.
“I did a lot of at-home workouts during COVID,” said Pough, a first-team preseason All-Southland Conference selection. “With no gyms open, it was about getting a run in early then coming home and doing the basics like pushups and situps. Over time, people reached out to me to work out at their facility, so I had a good support system.”
That support system included newly hired Director of Strength and Conditioning Erik Schwager, whose first couple of months on the job were among the most unique of any first-year coach’s in any sport.
“We hired him a day before everybody was sent home,” Laird said. “His first two or three months on the job was getting to know our guys virtually. Now he gets to do it one on one.”
Schwager, like most of the NSU staff, managed to stay connected to the Demon players and fellow coaches and built a foundation with his new charges.
“We focused on building relationships and getting to know guys better,” Landry said. “It’s been crazy with the whole COVID thing, but I stayed in close contact with coach Schwager, and he kept us accountable and doing what we need to do. It hasn’t been ideal, but I’m confident our guys have been working and we’re ready to get back to it.”
That attitude will serve the Demons well as they aim to get off on a good foot in 2020.
Northwestern State’s schedule begins with a pair of home Southland Conference games – against Incarnate Word on Sept. 3 and Nicholls on Sept. 12 – placing even more importance on a quick start.
“That’s one thing that is going to be very important,” said Laird, whose team was picked 10th in the conference’s preseason poll. “It’s not necessarily because we are opening with a conference game, but we open with two Southland Conference games at home. This conference is very competitive, we know that. Knowing we start with those two games, as we go through fall camp, that adds a little pep to our step and motivation.
“We understand the importance of every game, especially conference games. We know the caliber of UIW and Nicholls, who represented the Southland Conference in the last NCAA Playoffs the last two years. For us, it will be about who we are and our development between now and then.”