As the increasing number of COVID-19 cases makes Arizona one of the worst hot spots in the nation, the Arizona Interscholastic Association announced last Friday that the high school fall sports season will be delayed up to three weeks.
The AIA’s preliminary plans to make modifications are in accordance with Governor Ducey’s executive action to delay the start of in-person schooling until Aug. 17, which will serve as the start of the AIA fall season, at least for now.
In an email to media members, AIA Sports Information Coordinator Seth Polansky wrote, “plans are in place to finish all fall sports seasons on time and in full with modifications. Some of these ideas, among others, will be taken to the leadership of each conference,” before adding “nothing is finalized yet.”
According to the email, football in the 2A-6A conferences would play an 8-10 game schedule, commencing on Sept. 7, three weeks later than the original Aug. 21 start of the season. 1A football, which includes Copper Area schools Superior, Hayden, Ray, and San Manuel, “is currently looking at modifications, if necessary.”
Golf and badminton would start Aug. 24 and Aug. 31, respectively. All other fall sports would begin the week of Sept. 7.
One idea being floated around social media to prevent a complete cancellation of the fall season, if necessary, is moving some fall sports, including football, to the spring.
That is not an option, according to AIA Executive Director David Hines.
“It doesn’t make sense for us to look at that because there’s a lot of other things going on that kids are involved in activities,” Hines said in a Q&A video posted on YouTube. “Another piece of that is coaches; not all of our coaches are teaching at the schools. When they are hired to coach a sport, they’re hired to coach a particular season. They [may not] be available at a different time during the season.”
Hines estimated that he has been a part of 100 meetings since schools closed in mid-March, as plans have changed and changed again.
“This thing is moving at such a pace that every time you think you might have a plan a new day comes about, and we have to rethink the plans that we have,” he said.
Superior Principal Billy Duarte is an AIA Committee member who has been involved in those meetings and can attest to the ever changing discussions taking place about moving forward amid the pandemic.
“Nothing is set in stone because of all the variables,” Duarte told Copper Area News, echoing Polansky’s words in the email.
San Manuel Athletic Director Damon Lovato acknowledged the anxiety of the unknown among student-athletes, parents, coaches, and administrators, but believes the AIA has been as transparent as it can during these unprecedented times.
“The AIA has been very good at communicating with the schools throughout this whole process,” he said. “They’ve been very clear about where we stand.”
Some schools, mostly on the reservations, have already cancelled their entire fall sports seasons, causing other schools to scramble and find replacement games. The AIA will assist those schools in finding alternate games if the decision is to reschedule other opponents. Teams whose schedules are affected may simply play a reduced number of games. Nothing is off the table regarding scheduling as a result of the delay.
For those wondering about fan attendance whenever competition resumes on fields and courts, Hines addressed the subject in the YouTube video.
“That’s a governor and CDC decision,” he said. “Bottom line is Governor Ducey and our state has a planned approach, a phased approach to kind of coming back to some type of normalcy.
“Currently, we are in Phase I. Phase II allows groups of up to 50 then in Phase III it opens up where now you can have more people involved,” he continued. “Those decisions will be based on the current numbers in Arizona, the current numbers going on around each county because our schools are really encouraged to pay attention to their county health departments across the state. That will really dictate if we’re going to be able to have some fans around.”
Hines understands the importance of competition for student-athletes, including the mental aspect of it. Of course, the unfortunate experience of the absence of the spring championship season is still fresh in everybody’s mind too. Still, the No. 1 priority remains the safety of the students.
“It is our intention that everything we can do to have the opportunity to participate and compete, we’re going to be able to do that with the understanding that the governor sets the priorities of what we can and can’t do,” he explained.
There remains concern among some coaches about the difficulties of overcoming the challenges this pandemic presents in a return to playing.
“I am concerned,” Superior football head coach Ryan Palmer said. “We can set any guidelines and precautions we want, but the reality is that it is hard to social distance in schools and in sports.
“My current understanding is that the more time that passes, the more knowledge and guidelines will be available. I hope our student-athletes, especially the seniors, get to play this season. They are dedicated and work hard. I know they want a chance to showcase their talents and abilities on the playing field.”
It should be noted that any proposed modifications by the AIA for the fall season are contingent on students being schooled in-person sooner rather than later, which is a hotly debated topic the Copper Area is all too familiar with.
What if schools do not re-open?
“That takes us right out of the mix,” Hines said.