Everywhere ECU football turned this preseason, it seemed like hurdles stood in the way of playing a season this fall. Two pauses since voluntary workouts began earlier this summer and numerous cancellations from teams on their schedule forced the Pirates to become resilient and lock in together on the goal of playing football.

All that has taken a physical toll, but also a mental one on student-athletes, coaches and staff associated with the program. Their sacrifices and efforts, however, have led to a season-opener against UCF on Saturday inside Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.

“It hasn’t been an easy process to get here, and I really won’t truly believe it until we step on the field,” ECU Athletic Director Jon Gilbert said. “I am confident we are definitely playing on Saturday. Our kids have been through so much adversity. Stopping, starting practice, testing weekly, having to deal with positives, having to deal with contact tracing and really the mental aspect of that. We’ve been doing that since mid-June. The number of starts, stops, we’re going to play, we’re not playing, all those things take a mental toll on everyone involved. I’m just excited to be able to watch the Pirates compete on Saturday.”

Testing for COVID-19 has been the biggest hurdle for collegiate sports programs to clear since the pandemic began back in the spring. As a member of the American Athletic Conference, the Pirates started out testing once per week for the virus, eventually upping that to two per week. During game weeks, however, the Pirates will be tested three times per week, every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

Those test results provide the roadmap for how game day operations will be carried out. Once the results come back on the rapid result test administered Friday, medical personnel from both ECU and UCF, as well as the AAC, will meet to discuss how they plan to proceed.

“We did the two nasal swab PCR tests Monday, Wednesday,” Gilbert said. “We’ve got the antigen test on Friday. Then we get with our medical group, the ECU medical staff — which has been outstanding to deal with. We’ll get on the phone with the AAC Medical Advisory Group, the Central Florida medical staff, and talk about where we are from a testing standpoint and then labeling the game a low, moderate or high risk and then making a determination of whether we’re going to play. I feel really good at this point. Our testing numbers were outstanding over the last two tests and I’m confident Friday will go well.”

Through Wednesday’s test, the Pirates are 100% COVID negative, according to head coach Mike Houston. Even so, he has a handful of players still in the return to play protocol or that are dealing with injuries that will not suit up on Saturday.

One of those is offensive lineman Noah Henderson, meaning the Pirates plan to start redshirt freshman Nishad Strother and redshirt junior Bailey Malovic on the right side of the offensive line.

“I feel good about our testing from the standpoint of we’ve had negative on Monday, negative on Wednesday,” Houston said. “Our guys are being very conscientious so I would expect us to be negative tomorrow (Friday). I feel pretty good about that going into the game.”

ECU kicks off against UCF on Saturday at noon inside Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. The game is closed to the public, but can be viewed nationally on ABC.

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