The Arizona Interscholastic Association Executive Board voted Thursday during a special meeting to approve a Jan. 5 start date for winter sports.
The winter sports season was originally scheduled to begin on Nov. 9. However, due to the rising number of cases and key metrics in the state, few teams were able to begin as scheduled. The two-month delay allows for the possibility of Arizona’s latest surge to begin a downward trend like it did in August when fall sports were delayed.
“It is safer to be at school with your kids than at home,” AIA Executive Director David Hines said. “Delaying the start of the season will give our coaches and administrators time to implement safety protocols and put sports modifications in place.”
For competition to begin, specific guidelines must be met.
If a student participates with a non-school team, they must be excluded from practice for 14 days. All winter sports modifications must be followed, and no scrimmages, invitational tournaments, regional tournaments or out-of-state competition will be allowed to take place.
The metrics introduced in the fall by the AIA's Sports Medicine Advisory Committee will be used to determine when and if fans are allowed to attend events. However, they will not be used to determine when competition may begin.
“The metrics can be all over the place but if kids are doing all the mitigation they’re required to do when at school, practice and games, the health department and our sports medicine said they are safer there than at home,” Hines said. “They aren’t following the protocols when they’re home.
“The cases are not being caused by being at school or playing sports.”
The AIA board also voted to approve agenda items related specifically to wrestling, the winter sport with the most contact of the three.
Wrestling will be included in the non-participation bylaws as a team sport for this season only. Typically, wrestling is considered an individual sport and athletes are free to train on their own or participate in national club events during the season. This year, however, athletes will be prohibited from doing any activities in regard to the sport outside of the school program.
Additionally, the board also approved the number of matches in a season to increase from 12 to 14.
Mountain Pointe wrestling coach Greg Dayoob welcomed the new guidelines surrounding wrestling and winter sports. Having missed the entire 2019 season while battling colon and liver cancer, he is excited to get back on the mat with his wrestlers.
“I haven’t coached a wrestling match in almost two years, which is weird to me,” Dayoob said. “It feels good to know the AIA has a plan for wrestling. I think a lot of us coaches in the wrestling community thought they wouldn’t try really hard to get wrestling going.
“But after going through virtual meetings with the AIA and the athletic director for Tempe Union, I have changed my thoughts on that.”
Mountain Pointe basketball coach Kaimarr Price said while the AIA’s announcement of a start date for winter sports is progress, he remains cautiously optimistic.
“Nobody really has a lot of definitive information on what is going to happen,” Price said. “My approach is to just stay ready. Stay ready for if that day comes and if it changes, stay ready.
“That’s all we can really focus on is staying ready for if and when we get that call.”
Desert Vista basketball coach Gino Crump has already seen the impact delaying a season can have on a public-school program. In the last two weeks, he lost shooting guard Marcus Wady to a Texas high school and point guard Dasean Lecque to Hillcrest Prep in Phoenix.
Because there are less restrictions associated with prep teams, they have been playing games and practicing since the summer months. While Crump believes the AIA’s action Thursday is a step in the right direction, he believes the damage has been done.
“Most of the top players have already left,” Crump said. “There really isn’t much room for the prep schools to take the kids, in my mind. The seniors I understand because they’re trying to earn a scholarship as soon as possible.
“It’s a step in the right direction but as far as I’m concerned, the damage has been done.”
Greg Haagsma, the athletic director and head basketball coach at Valley Christian in Chandler, said club sports were some of his main concerns in regard to club sports. But with the AIA’s plan, students must stop playing with a club team 14 days prior to the start of official practices at school in order to be eligible right away.
“I like the concepts they’re coming up with,” Haagsma said. “My main concern was that they gave us something to compete against club sports. They’ve answered my questions with that so I really like the plan.”
As was the case with fall sports, once schools are approved to begin practicing and competition in the winter, the AIA will not stop the season. A decision of that caliber would have to come from state health officials or Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey.
Hines and the AIA have said on numerous occasions they want to avoid the same scenario that unfolded last spring, when baseball, softball, boys’ volleyball, beach volleyball, track & field and tennis saw its seasons cut short due to the virus’ arrival in the state.
The delay to winter sports now pushes back the start date of spring sports by a week from Feb. 8 to Feb. 15. Spring championships schedules have not been changed.
“If we didn’t do some of these protocols, we aren’t playing sports,” Hines said. “If we don’t make adjustments and follow the health data and listen to experts, we don’t get to do these things. I know sometimes that’s hard for people to understand but we are going through a lot of important people that have a lot of say.
“We aren’t going to do anything that would cause the government entity to shut us down.”