The Arizona Interscholastic Association on Friday voted in favor of cancelling the winter prep sports season due to the latest surge in coronavirus cases and other metrics in the state.
The motion passed with a 5-4 vote. Board members in favor of cancelling cited rising hospitalization rates and expressed concern athletes competing would not be able to receive adequate care if injured. Additionally, members said sports are an “extension of the classroom,” and pointed to many districts electing to not immediately return to in-person learning after winter break.
“While we understand the Board’s position, we are saddened by this decision, especially considering that Club sports are continuing," AIA Executive Direcotor David Hines said in a press release. "To the best of our knowledge, never in our 100-plus-year history has the AIA canceled an entire season. We want nothing more than for our students to be active in school and participating in interscholastic sports and activities."
Arizona was recently announced as the global hotspot for COVID-19 cases based on the rate per capita. Hospitals and ICUs, as of Friday, were 93 percent full – a large majority due to COVID-19 patients. In December, the AIA announced it would further delay the start of winter sports from Jan. 5 to 18 due to hospitalization metrics. The delay also gave teams a two-week buffer after winter break in the event of cases within their programs.
While AIA Executive Director David Hines and most of the board voted in the fall to only shut down sports if told to do so by Gov. Doug Ducey and state health officials, members reversed course and said they could no longer go against recommendations from SMAC and others providing insight to the board.
“The vote comes after recent recommendations from the AIA’s Sports Medicine Advisory Committee recommended cancellation of the winter sports season," Hines said. "While the board elected previously to continue with fall sports and go against the SMAC’s recommendation to cancel, metrics in the state were far better than what has been seen in the last two months."
Outgoing Chandler Unified School Camille Casteel and Athletic Director Marcus Williams were among those who voted for winter sports to continue.
They both cited the social-emotional aspect of student-athletes and the harm it may cause if sports are canceled. They also highlighted school mitigation strategies and their belief that student-athletes are safest in the cohort of a team.
“It's not a requirement for our schools to compete,” Casteel said. “I'm very concerned about the emotional connection and what this will say to our seniors.”
Winter sports for high school in Arizona were initially slated to begin in November but rising COVID-19 metrics forced the AIA to delay the start to Jan. 5. When numbers continued to rise, it was delayed again to Jan. 18.
Executive Board President Toni Corona said during Friday’s special meeting they could no longer “kick the can down the road.” Ultimately, the decision to cancel was made.
The decision was met with disappointment and devastation.
"I'm devastated," Mesa wrestling coach David DiDomenico said. "The kids were ready to go. I understand the decision made by the AIA. They are sharp people that care up there. When they cast their vote, it had to be a very heavy cast. I feel for them, too."
As was the case for many programs, DiDomenico said his athletes used their time with the wrestling team at practice for a variety of reasons. Most importantly, however, was an escape from a difficult reality caused by the pandemic.
"In that moment, those two hours we were together, nothing else mattered," DiDomenico said. "All they cared about was their teammates and their coaches. Everything else going on in the world was not in our minds. For those few hours the kids could just be themselves."
Highland boys' basketball coach Todd Fazio questioned the decision by the AIA, pointing to restaurants and other high-risk activities being open in the state but winter sports unable to continue. While he acknowledged the decision was difficult by the AIA board, he believes the hardest aspect will be facing his players.
“I've been with them since August. We've done everything right since August and now I have to face them and tell them we aren't having a season," Fazio said. "It's like telling them to study for a test and then there is no test. I know the leadership is looking out for a lot of people but these kids are still going to play. Now they go from playing in an empty gym to going under a roof where 10 games will go on at the same time.
"This was an opportunity to play in the safest environment."
Saguaro boys' basketball coach Lucas Ramirez said while he understand the decision by the AIA was difficult, he believes the timing of it was not ideal.
"These are serious times, the numbers don't lie," Ramirez said. "However, I wish the timing was a little better. We knew we were heading in this direction with bad numbers and statistics with this virus. Why wait this long to make a decision?"
Ramirez went on to question other mitigation strategies around the state outside or education and interscholastic sports that have been shown to contribute more to the spread of the virus.
"I'm just very disappointed for our student athletes and really at a loss for words," he added.
Chandler girls' basketball coach Glenda Skalitzky said the news caught her by surprise.
"I'm sad. It's just sad and disappointing we had to come to this," Skalitzky said. "I feel it should have been postponed another week. I know Chandler, we voted yes. I feel for these kids and I feel for the kids who have been working so hard and for their mental health. This is an outlet for a lot of kids."
Desert Vista boys' soccer coach Trent Elliott said he was "shocked" when he heard the AIA's decision. His three senior captains already reached out to him to express their disappointment.
"They're obviously very upset," Elliott said. "I was in shock they made a vote and it came out the way it did. Realistically, you can take a look at the numbers and realize the state of Arizona is not in a good place. I just think the timing of it was what caught us off guard and took us by surprise."
Mountain Pointe boys' basketball coach Kaimarr Price said now is the time to be there for all student-athletes.
“I think as adults in a leadership position, we have to be leaders," Price said. "We know how to adapt and change in life. It sucks to think about it like this but at the end of the day, we get to coach next season where as some of these seniors, this was their last chance. It isn't about us coaches. We shouldn't be coaching for our satisfaction.
"When things go wrong like this, it should be our goal to take care of our players and help them through a tough time."
The decision to cancel winter sports, so far, has no effect on spring sports, which lost its season last year at the start of the pandemic. As of now, the spring sports season is scheduled to begin March 1.
However, Hines said the same outcome for spring may come to fruition should case metrics continue to rise at an unprecedented rate.
"It is my sincerest hope that all Arizonans will follow the CDC and Arizona Health guidelines by wearing masks, washing hands frequently, and practicing social distance to decrease cases and hospitalizations," Hines said. "If for no other reason, I hope we can do it for the kids.”