East Valley high school athletic directors continue to do their part to navigate sport programs through a tenuous summer filled with uncertainty surrounding a fall sports season.
The latest developments, which included an executive order by Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey to delay in-person learning to Aug. 17 followed by an announcement by the Arizona Interscholastic Association pushing back the start date of official practices to the same day, led to several schools shutting down athletic summer training sessions on campus. Some schools remained hopeful to resume conditioning workouts on Monday, July 13.
Others, however, tentatively pushed things back to July 20.
“I’m optimistic about sports happening in the fall,” Mountain Pointe Athletic Director Aaron Frana said. “Our student-athletes need sports to give them some sort of normalcy.”
Several of Mountain Pointe’s athletic programs decided against holding summer workouts despite being given the green light to do so on June 15. The football program began field workouts while the cross country program participated in daily runs.
Badminton did not conduct workouts. The volleyball program also decided against a summer camp until the second phase. Cheer, which is a year-round sport, only had two conditioning workouts on campus before Tempe Union schools shut down camps the week of July 4.
“Our volleyball program decided to wait until they can get bigger groups in the gym,” Frana said. “I’m a positive guy so I’m hopeful to be able to allow them all back on campus on the 20th. Fingers crossed.”
Desert Vista’s athletic teams took a slightly different approach.
Football was the only school team practicing on campus. School Athletic Director Tommy Eubanks said volleyball, baseball and softball had considered conducting camps but decided to not go forward with plans so players could stick to their respective clubs.
“Cross country did stuff on their own and volleyball thought with the restrictions it didn’t make a lot of sense for them to come in,” Eubanks said. “We are being strict with what they are allowed to do. And it would be the same if we are able to return on the 20th.”
Eubanks, like many others, is currently in wait-and-see mode in regard to fall sports taking place. While he is hopeful, he also understands it depends entirely on the status of the state’s fight against the virus.
“People ask me how I feel and what I think, and I always say they’ll know when I know,” Eubanks said. “We can’t even move into phase two until the governor does and honestly, I don’t know when that will happen.”
Like most districts, Tempe Union will give students the option to attend school in-person, online or a combination of the two. Ultimately, it’s up to the parents and students to decide whether they feel comfortable attending school in person should schools be able to open.
The AIA allows students to complete online schoolwork as long as it is registered through a district and one of its respective schools and compete on an athletic team. Executive Director David Hines said that will remain the case this year if students choose to only conduct online coursework.
“Kids taking virtual classes through a third-person, Primavera type are not eligible,” Hines said. “If the governor says we can go back to in-person school, regardless if a kid decides to stay online, go in-person or do a combination of the two, they are eligible at that school.
“For example, if a kid takes online classes through the Mesa district and some are through Mountain View, they are eligible to compete for Mountain View.”
Several other East Valley schools are grappling with the same challenges as Tempe Union.
Chandler Unified School District’s return-to-play plan called for four nine-day phases that would eventually allow teams to practice without limitations. Chandler teams should currently be entering the fourth and final phase, which involved playing other teams in traditional 7-on-7 tournaments.
But schools never made it out of the first phase. The morning of its scheduled transition to the second phase, teams were told to essentially press pause on any advancements.
“It was a combination of guidance from the district and our own decision,” Hamilton Athletic Director Brett Palmer said in regard to not moving into the second phase. “We want to do what is best for our athletes.”
Palmer said the Chandler district allowed teams to begin workouts again on Monday, July 13.
Football, volleyball, boys and girls basketball and cheer all began workouts at Hamilton this summer. Though most have already decided not to return when given the green light by district and school officials.
Palmer reflected on the possibility of sports not taking place in the fall, explaining his desire to allow athletes to play if it is deemed safe to do so.
“Personally, I hope we can get something going knowing it is going to be super different than in year’s past,” Palmer said. “I think me, and the coaches are hopeful to allow kids to compete in sports. They are going stir crazy. They all want to compete but we have to do it in a safe manner.”
Other districts that will also be limited to conditioning upon a return to the field and courts includes Mesa Public Schools.
All summer activities across the district were suspended shortly after Ducey’s order. But even then, some teams decided to call off training sessions beforehand.
Red Mountain coach Mike Peterson was the first to make such a decision, suspending workouts out of an abundance of caution for his coaches and players the week before July 4. Initially, they had set a tentative date to resume on July 13. But school Athletic Director Jason Grantham said things are still on pause.
“We are kind of in a holding pattern right now,” Grantham said. “Once the AIA came out and said without kids in school there won’t be sports, Mesa followed suit and had us cancel summer camps until further notice. Hopefully we can return before the Aug. 17 date but as of right now the entire district is kind of on hold.”
Most of Red Mountain’s programs were able to conduct summer workouts outside, but only fall sports teams were allowed in the weight room. Volleyball, cross country and football all took advantage while swim and golf elected not to. Groups were limited to nine players and a coach.
The baseball and softball teams took part in open field workouts with players spread out, wearing masks and gloves at all times.
Like other athletic directors, Grantham is trying to not to cast doubt on the season.
“I don’t know if I am optimistic but I’m hopeful we can either condense the season or push the start time back for fall, winter and spring,” Grantham said. “I would hate to have to cancel another season. It was tough to do that.”
Gilbert Public Schools was one of the first districts to allow athletes to return to campus to begin summer workouts. A three-phased plan that outlined a two-week period for initial conditioning followed by the ability for teams to workout in larger groups and use equipment.
Schools advanced to the second phase before camps were shut down. Athletic directors from all member schools have met weekly to discuss the resuming workouts and the season as a whole. Rod Huston, the athletic director at Mesquite, said they are hopeful to allow teams back to campus and resume activities in the second phase on Monday, July 20.
“We meet and have a discussion, come up with our plans and share it with Steve McDowell, the district AD, then he takes it to the cabinet to share what we are thinking,” Huston said. “Everything is kind of week-to-week right now.”
Much of the discussions center around the risks to coaches who may be in the category where severe illness is possible due to the virus. They also focus on the social-emotional aspect for kids sitting at home doing zoom calls and not having interaction with others.
Huston said the athletic directors believe teams need a three-to-five-week window to get teams back together and prepare for a season. Of course, there’s still the possibility of the season being delayed even longer or canceled.
Huston hopes that won’t be the case.
“I’m hopeful,” Huston said. “I think the AIA is taking a measured approach and is watching what is going on. There’s a piece of high school sports that is different. For many kids, even as a sophomore playing on a junior varsity team, that could be there last time doing it and it is special for them.
“I don’t want them to lose that.”
Arizona isn’t alone when it comes to uncertainty surrounding the fall sports season.
Michael Hinojosa, the superintendent of the Dallas Independent School District in Texas, told multiple news outlets last week that he has doubts football can be played. Other states such as New Mexico have already moved football and soccer to the spring.
Doing the same in Arizona is unlikely. However, the AIA does have several options on the table.
The AIA announced Friday, July 10 it would be sending surveys on Aug. 4 to member schools to determine how it will proceed with a fall sports season. Hines said the association is weighing a number of different options, including delaying and shortening the fall sports season.
As it stands, the AIA said if kids are allowed back into schools by Aug. 17, golf is likely to begin Aug. 24, badminton Aug. 31 and all other sports, including football and volleyball, will begin the week of Sept. 7. Even if school is delayed further, however, Hines said the association has discussed several backup plans. As it stands, if kids are allowed back in schools sports will be played.
“Plan ‘A’ went out the window, but we have a plan ‘B,’ ‘C,’ ‘D,’ and so on,” Hines said. “We have the ability to do a number of different things in order to not lose out on another season.”