By Dave Wagner
The Eastern New Mexico University football team left by bus early Wednesday morning for the long ride to Arkansas and tonight’s season opener against Central Arkansas.
First-year coach Mark Ribaudo said the Greyhounds will be shorthanded when they take the War Memorial Stadium turf in Little Rock with three starters suspended for the contest.
Ribaudo declined to release the names of the players.
In addition, four other starters are nursing injuries, Ribaudo said, and All-Lone Star Conference South Division wide receiver Derrick Hunter was already scheduled to miss at least the opener with a knee injury.
“We did a pretty good job with injuries until this last week,” said Ribaudo, who has been at ENMU as an assistant coach and defensive coordinator under the retired Bud Elliott since 1997. “It’s a long trip, it’s a great stadium and we’re playing against a great football team from a great conference (Gulf South).”
The teams met last year at Blackwater Draw, with Central Arkansas holding on for a 38-31 win. The Bears went on to an 8-3 season.
Sixth-year Central Arkansas coach Clint Conque has nine regulars returning on offense and defense, but said he isn’t sure what to expect.
“You go into any season with some unknowns,” he said. “Until you play a game, you don’t really know the identity of your team.”
Still, he said the Bears are optimistic. Despite graduating talented quarterback Zac Clark, Conque said the team has brought in some good players to supplement what returns.
“One of the biggest upgrades we’ve made is in our defense,” he said. “Although we have a lot of people back, we’ve added more length and more speed, and we’ve built some quality depth at linebacker.”
Chris Reil, a sixth-year senior and a double transfer who started his college career at Division I-AA Northwestern State (La.) and spent a year at Gulf South rival Henderson State, saw regular duty for the Bears when Clark was hurt in 2003 and now takes over under center.
“They had a really good football team last year,” Ribaudo said. “The thing that impressed me more than anything was their discipline. They’d make a big play, just put the ball down and go back to the huddle.
“I thought we played our guts out just to have an opportunity to win at the end.”
The game, one of four Thursday night contests this season for the Bears, has been dubbed the “Capital City Classic,” and Conque said he’s hoping for a crowd of around 15,000 in the 53,000-seat stadium. Part of each ticket sold will benefit Arkansas Children’s Hospital.
ENMU vs. Central Arkansas, 6 p.m. (MDT) today, at Little Rock, Ark.
Records: Season opener for both teams.
Radio: KSEL-FM 95.3.
On the Web: www.enmu.edu/athletics
Coaches: ENMU, Mark Ribaudo, 1st year; Central Arkansas, Clint Conque, 6th year.
Last meeting: The Bears built a 21-0 lead late in the first half and held on to beat ENMU 38-31 in the 2004 season opener at Blackwater Draw.
Central Arkansas players to watch: Kentrel Rogers, 5-10, 215, Sr., TB; Michael Norvell, 6-0, 175, Sr., WR; Quentin Maxfield, 6-0, 235, Jr.; Cory Cangelosi, 6-1, 202, Sr., S; Greg Mills, 6-1, 292, Sr., NG; Willie Hopson, 5-10, 194, So., TB; Aaron Fairooz, 6-6, 215, Jr., WR.
Quotable: “When you play a team like Eastern, they’ll make you be very disciplined. That has the potential to negate some of (our) team speed).” — Conque.