Masks are back…trying to save a high school sports season

High school athletes and coaches must feel like they’re trapped in a time warp.

Things were beginning to return to some semblance of normalcy following the outbreak two years ago of the COVID-19 virus that quickly turned into a pandemic that forced major changes in the way sports in this state could be conducted.

Now, it’s deja vu time.

Earlier this week, the Arizona Interscholastic Association (AIA) confirmed that more than 800 games and matches had been cancelled in just a three-day period.  And, once again, the culprit is the coronavirus, this time a new variant called Omicron.

The rapid spread of the virus variant has caught the schools by surprise.  And it has become so widespread that coaches and administrators are hoping the sports programs can get through the winter schedule without hitting the pause button.

That was the concern of one high school coach interviewed by Richard Obert at The Arizona Republic last weekAdrian Orona, the boys basketball coach at Canyon View High School in Waddell offered his opinion:  “If we don’t get this under control quickly, a shutdown of the season is imminent.”

We’re a long way from the spring of 2020 when the original COVID virus broke out and the spring sports season was cut short.  The AIA’s Sport Medical Advisory Committee issued a 10-page guide that summer, setting out rules that would have to be followed when, and if, the fall season got underway.

Players were limited to home workouts and organized training was done with Zoom sessions.  When on-site practices were able to begin, the players couldn’t use the locker rooms.  They had to drive themselves to practice, get checked for temperatures once there, keep six-foot distancing, bring their own ball, and have their equipment disinfected before and after training sessions.  Hugs, high-fives, or even fist bumps were no longer allowed.

We’ve come a long way since then in learning to cope with this pandemic.  The draconian lock-down measures of the past are just a disturbing memory.

Players aren’t likely to see those kinds of extreme health measures again.  But the problems brought on by the spread of the Omicron variant are extremely disruptive nonetheless.

Just keeping enough officials healthy to oversee the games/matches has been a challenge.  Every effort is being made to avoid cancelling games, but so many are being rescheduled that the playoffs could be affected.  There are just several weeks remaining in the regular season, with so many make-up games looking for a spot on that dwindling schedule.

Many schools have resorted to a return to the players wearing masks during practices and other activities.  Even the wrestling team at Tempe’s Corona del Sol High School is working out wearing masks.

The mask mandate had been lifted by the AIA in time for the start of this school year.  Now, just five months in, it’s rearing its ugly head once again.

These are desperate measures for desperate times.  Many teams are woefully short of players, either through players sitting out due to COVID protocols or, in some cases, parents pulling their children from sports participation as an added precaution.  For small schools, with a limited number of participants to begin with, that can have a disastrous effect on the ability to compete.

Only time will tell whether we make it to the playoffs.  Right now coaches are doing their best to field competitive teams with varsity programs often pulling up JV players to fill in.

To keep things in perspective, we have to remember it’s not as bad as it was two years ago.

But when you’re back to wearing a mask, it’s hard to keep that in mind.