The Las Cruces High School boys basketball team earned a weird and depressing distinction Friday – the Bulldawgs are the last sports state champion of New Mexico’s 2019-20 high school sports calendar.
The New Mexico Activities Association’s board of directors made the sobering – and yet inevitable – decision Friday to cancel the remainder the state’s prep season, as the COVID-19 pandemic claimed New Mexico’s five spring sports.
“That may have been the toughest vote I’ve had to take,” NMAA board president, T.J. Parks of Hobbs, that district’s superintendent, told the Journal in a telephone interview Friday afternoon.
When the Public Education Department scheduled an announcement Friday that students would not be returning to their campuses for the rest of the school year, the NMAA had no choice but to follow suit, and quickly.
“We didn’t feel that we had any other recourse,” Parks said. “Everyone understands that we’re in dire straits right now. It was a pretty gloomy environment (on Friday’s conference call).”
The five spring sports – baseball, softball, golf, tennis and track and field – all were a couple of weeks into their 2020 seasons when the NMAA on March 13 said there would be a suspension of all sports and activities until further notice.
That further, and final, notice came Friday.
“It definitely sucks,” said La Cueva’s Connor O’Toole, among the state’s premier track athletes and a football commit to the University of Utah. “But it’s out of your control. … My heart goes out to those kids who still have something to prove athletically, the kids who are chasing scholarships.”
The state basketball tournament, which ended two weeks ago, was one of the last in the country to conclude. And it did so without fans for the final three days at Dreamstyle Arena – the Pit.
The 10 state finals were contested with only about 100 people inside the Pit, making for a surreal experience. Las Cruces beat Capital in the Class 5A title game on March 14, and that will be recorded as the last official prep contest in the state – at least until August, assuming the health crisis has passed by then.
“I’m hopeful (they will begin on time),” NMAA executive director Sally Marquez said of the fall sports. The state spirit competition, which was scheduled to begin Friday, will not be made up.
“I’m sad,” Marquez said in the aftermath of Friday’s board vote. She has a son who is a senior athlete at La Cueva. “I’m sad for the seniors. Their hopes and dreams as far as having a spring sports season has ended. And for the other athletes as well.”
Coaches were not caught off guard.
“We knew that it was going to be a good chance this was gonna happen,” Albuquerque High girls tennis coach Liz Keefe said.
The NMAA board plans to meet again some time in early May. Among the priority items is figuring out the summer and whether the fall sports can proceed with their normal offseason calendar.
“We moved it up to give them a little headway as to the direction we’re gonna go,” Parks said. “We didn’t want to wait until the end of May.”
So much of what occurs at the next board meeting will depend on COVID-19, and what direction the Department of Health will take as the lead agency.
“Uncharted territory, man,” Cleveland High football coach Heath Ridenour said. “We’re gonna have to figure it out.”
Ridenour said football coaches still have time to install a full summer program.
“If we get things back to normal, first of June, I think everyone will be fine,” he said.
But the athletes and teams of the spring face the frustration and heartbreak of having the plug pulled. And knowing there will be no blue trophies or medals for anyone in May. Activities such as choir and band also were axed.
“I think everyone is understandably disappointed,” said Keefe. “We did think we had a really good chance of winning state this year. We had a very, very strong team.”
Eldorado senior girls track and field athlete Olivia Mikaelian tweeted the following Friday, echoing the feeling many teenagers shared on a dark day.
“This is easily some of the saddest news I’ve ever gotten in my life.”