For the first time in the history of the Arizona Interscholastic Association, full sports seasons have been canceled, after the Executive Board voted 5-4 not to have winter sports seasons.
The COVID-19 pandemic that in March canceled the spring sports season surged in recent weeks in Arizona, making the state the No. 1 hotspot in the country and causing the Sports Medicine Advisory Committee to recommended to the board to not start the winter sports season.
Emotions spilled over in the high school sports community in the aftermath of this decision that impacts basketball and soccer players and wrestlers in Arizona among the nearly 300 schools in the AIA.
“It’s a tragedy that a handful of adults made a decision that robs thousands of young women and men across the state,” said Phoenix St. Mary’s boys basketball coach Damin Lopez, whose team was ranked No. 1 in 4A by The Arizona Republic in preseason. “With a vaccine increasing in distribution and the fact that student-athletes were competing in AIA activities on the day of the vote just makes one wonder what their real motivation is.”
The winter sports season was set to start in 10 days.
During the December special AIA Executive Board meeting that pushed the start date back from Jan. 5, AIA Executive Director David Hines said that the only way the season wouldn’t start is if Gov. Doug Ducey would shut down the state.
That hasn’t happened.
“It’s disappointing,” said Kwame Hymes, who was battling the AIA for his son Isaac to have his entire sophomore basketball season at Goodyear Millennium restored after leaving national prep program Hillcrest. “My heart goes out to all the seniors that this decision is affecting.”
Mesa Mountain View coach Gary Ernst, the winningest boys basketball coach in AIA history, said he felt the AIA could have compromised and pushed the season back two more weeks with a five-week season. He also suggested a varsity-only spring season for basketball.
“Give us two more weeks off and give us a five-week season with a tourney,” Ernst said in an email.. “Give us a spring season varsity only. But don’t take away our seniors last year after weeks and weeks of practice with the idea they were going to have a chance to play. PLEASE!!”
Phoenix Thunderbird head boys basketball coach Buddy Rake, who is an attorney, called the cancellation of winter sports “heartbreaking.”
But, he added, “Under the present circumstances, I think it is the right decision.”
Rake said tight mitigation measures were used during practices.
“Our coaches at every level have maintained a protective bubble,” Rake said. “We didn’t allow players to move from freshman to JV or varsity. We kept teams segregated and didn’t allow more than 12 players in the gym. We did a history every day and if a player sneezed we sent them home and requested a Covid test. Coaches had to wear masks throughout practice.”
Rake said there was great concern about COVID-19 as he led his team through practices.
“A Mayo cardiologist was consulted informally and he educated me about the rising number of myocarditis and other heart problems occurring in young athletes with Covid,” Rake said.
Rake says that his players will join a club team and “have far less protection than they would” with his team. He believes testing would have been a better thing to do than canceling the season.
College basketball across the country has been playing with daily testing conducted. The AIA doesn’t have COVID-19 testing for athletes.
“Since the Glendale Union District has been very successful in preventing spread among athletes, I would have preferred that the district determine that we would have games limited to Glendale Union High Schools,” Rake said. “We could have tested each player and coaches for Covid an hour before game time. The recent test I was required to have before leaving for Hawaii took thirty minutes. In Hawaii anyone can get a test for free. Athletic trainers could be trained to give and evaluate.”
Laurie Jones, mother of Washington-committed senior and The Republic’s 2019-20 All-Arizona Girls Basketball Team selection Marisa Davis of Valley Vista, feels it is sad that but can see both sides to this.
Medically, I see the bigger picture and the liabilities,” Jones said.
Queen Creek Casteel transfer guard Grace Oken, who left Gilbert Perry in June, lamented the AIA canceling the chance to play for senior season.
“I’m honestly heartbroken, this was our year at Casteel and we all knew that,” Oken said. “It’s upsetting how other sports could do whatever they wanted like nothing was going on in the world, but we get to winter sports and it’s all different for us. I’ve never been more excited for a season before like I was for this year. I have been dying to get onto the floor with my teammates and get that ring, and it all just got taken away from us in the blink of an eye. I never expected my senior season to get ripped away from me like this.”
Valley Vista girls basketball coach Rachel Matakas of The Republic’s top-ranked Super 10 poll girls basketball team and 6A defending championship team has had her team practice since August with masks on awaiting the season.
Valley Vista was scheduled to play its first game of the season against No. 5-ranked Phoenix Xavier Prep on Jan. 20.
“For (the AIA) just to say a blanket no, or seven days out before our first game, it’s not equitable,” Matakas said. “A lot of coaches have put a lot of things in place. There’s a lot of money already been spent on the season. For them not to even come up with a plan or an alternative to try and save the season I think is atrocious.
“We all know that there are other prep (basketball) teams currently still playing and I understand it’s a safety issue and that’s OK. But we can find ways to still be safe. Like, all athletes go online and they just show up to school for practice and then they play games. For a blanket statement and the vote to be that close, and just because one district has more pull than the others, I just don’t think that’s right.”
Defending 3A conference girls soccer state champion Gilbert Christian’s head coach and former Arizona Cardinals kicker Jay Feely is disappointed on the 5-4 vote.
“Never been more disappointed in the leadership of the AIA,” he said. “The board members didn’t put the best interests of the high school athletes at the forefront. The mental health consequences of their decision is certainly more detrimental to the high school athletes than Covid. I’m heartbroken for our seniors. The actions of the AIA board didn’t protect the athletes they simply kicked the can down the road to club sports and punished those who love high school sports.
“My message to the five board members is the seniors will never have this opportunity back. You stole something from them that can never be replaced. I hope that resonates deep in your soul. You were put in a role to lead and today you failed in your obligation. Today, you failed the very people you were entrusted to protect.”
Arizona NCAA scout for girls basketball Ron Coleman believes kids could lose college recruitment opportunities.
“It’s a tough situation for sure but our Covid numbers are the worst in the country,” he said. “Collectively, we need to continue promoting our 2021 players to colleges at all levels. Many deserve to play at the next level.”
Steve Sangillo, whose daughter Gabby is one of Goodyear Millennium’s top soccer players, pointed out that he would always send his children to Phoenix Children’s Hospital for injuries. He said he has had at least one child over the last nine years competing in sports.
“Are the children’s hospitals at the same capacity as regular hospitals?,” he said. “I ask because that being the main sticking point, if my child was injured in a high school sports, we would send them to Phoenix Children’s, not a regular hospital as they are better suited to handle injuries of those under the age of 18.”
Gabby Sangillo, who will be playing college soccer, feels for her fellow seniors who wont’ be moving onto the next level.
“I was really disappointed,” she said. “Not only for myself but for the players not playing at the next level, because they won’t have those games.”
Mesa boys wrestling head coach David DiDomenico understands the AIA’s decision and how club sports could be student-athletes’ alternative this winter:
“It won’t end up stopping anything. The logistics and the supervisor of the organization is just going to change. However, I feel with the AIA board. They made a tough decision,” DiDomenico said. “And each one of them, I know it weighs on them because they’re caring people. A lot of them are former coaches and teachers. They were us, so it wasn’t a lightly based decision.
“Now what’s going to happen is we’ll change vehicles on how we’re going to end up competing. They follow the science, the data, and safety is the No. 1 concern. There is no winning decision. Who knows what it is? We have discrepancies in the least running our own staff. They had to have made that call. It wasn’t a pro-football ‘lemme just get that done.’ It was the (COVID-19) numbers are through the roof.”
Phoenix Brophy Prep still held a soccer practice as planned Friday three hours after the AIA’s decision to cancel.
“We had a lot of new faces anxious to be apart of the program for the first time,” coach Paul Allen said. “Jumped through a lot of hoops to even get this far. We knew we had an uphill battle in order to complete a season in a pandemic but we were ready for the challenge.
“Heartbroken for our seniors who won’t get to finish the three peat many of them started. We understand the decision and fully support what has been done by the AIA board, just had hoped we could try to be as safe as possible and give this kids something to look forward to.”
Chandler Hamilton wrestling coach David DeSilva said he feels bad that the kids have been practicing hard for the season only to have it ripped out from under then 10 days before the start of competition.
“We’ve actually had a kid with COVID-19 go to the protocols and come back with no problems,” he said. “It seems that at this point we need to just bite the bullet and forge forward because these kids are actually handling it pretty well and if someone has any concerns they are free to opt out, which quite a few kids have.
“We were down 50% from last year but everybody that came back, including the parents, are fine the way we are navigating through the beginning of the season. It’s a lot of work to try and get the kids into college on some kind of athletic scholarship when they are not competing in their sports.”
Desert Vista junior guard Andrew King was declared eligible to return to play for Desert Vista this season after leaving PHH Prep. But now he said if there isn’t a club season created by AIA schools, he’ll just train on his own to get ready for his senior season.
“To be honest, it’s heartbreaking,” King said. “I feel really bad for the seniors. They don’t get their year. It’s unfair. Football got their season. And they had fans. Then they were saying winter sports would not have fans. I even heard we would have to wear masks in games, which I was fine with that. I thought they would do that. I feel this is unfair. They even promised Jan. 18 would be the date (to begin competition) and that they would only not have a season if Gov. Ducey shut down the state.”
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