Play ball! Fall sports back on track in AZ high schools

It’s been a long, winding – and bumpy – road to reopening high school sports in Arizona.  But it looks like we’ve finally reached the end of the trail.

The Arizona Interscholastic Association, the state’s governing body for high school sports, has made a final determination on a return to sports and other activities following a shut-down last spring to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

The organization decided to stick with a preliminary plan issued back in July, which calls for allowing the start of football practices on Labor Day and the first varsity competition set for Sept. 30.  Cross country, swimming, badminton, soccer, and volleyball practices are already underway.

In a special meeting called by the AIA Executive Board on Wednesday, the board voted to endorse the latest guidelines proposed by its Sports Medicine Advisory Committee (SMAC) to guide schools through a safe implementation of a return to activities.

The frustrating  five-month journey that has kept high school sports programs in a state of suspension since Mid-March began when the AIA announced that a two-week “temporary” suspension of sports would be extended until April 10.  That April 10 deadline came and went, and the wait turned into a summer-long stretch that would keep coaches and players hanging in limbo.

Eventually, the remainder of the spring sports season was cancelled and the long wait began.  It wasn’t long before the focus shifted to the fall season, as it began to look like the start of the fall season could be delayed, or even cancelled.

In mid-July, Odyssey Institute, a 3A school in Buckeye, became the first high school in Arizona to cancel fall sports.  By the end of that month, more than 15 high schools, most of those on reservations, had canceled fall sports.  The entire list of schools in the 3A North Region followed suit.

By that time, the AIA was sending out surveys to get input from its member schools; radical options were being considered, such as moving some fall sports to the spring season; and the AIA was forced to plan within the recommendations of its SMAC and the state’s various attempts to set a target date for school re-opening.

Now the fog of uncertainty has lifted and coaches can begin preparing for the season ahead, knowing when their teams will actually be competing again.

In football, the top two divisions, 6A and 5A, will have an eight-game regular-season schedule, while the bottom three divisions will play seven games.  The AIA is leaving it up to each school to decide whether to allow fans at the games.

The decision to resume play was based on a number of factors, perhaps most significant the fact that the recorded number of COVID-19 cases have been declining over recent weeks.  But going forward the AIA recommends a phased return to full activity, with the staged increase in participation based on how the reported virus cases are trending, county by county.

“I would like to say on behalf of the staff and the Sports Medicine Advisory Committee, especially for the sport of football, we would not have been able to make this decision until this time right now, based on the metrics,” explained AIA Executive Director David Hines.

Whether the decision to re-start now is a good one will depend on how well the schools adhere to the SMAC guidelines for a safe return.