RIO RANCHO, N.M. — The New Mexico Activities Association board of directors, by an 8-4 vote, on May 28 chose June 15 as the phase one resumption date for the state’s long-on-hiatus high school athletics.
“I think it’s critically important that we get kids back into the athletics and activities mode as quickly as we can, as safely as we can,” said NMAA board president T.J. Parks, the superintendent in Hobbs.
But June 15 seems unlikely in the City of Vision.
On Monday, the Rio Rancho Public Schools Board of Education will hear a report on the matter from Larry Chavez, executive director of athletics. June 15 won’t be what he recommends as a start date.
“I’m probably going to look at June 29,” Chavez said. “I’ll make a recommendation, but ultimately the board can approve or deny it and make their own recommendation.
“June 29 gives us time to dot all the I’s and cross the T’s and make sure we’re following all the guidelines — and it gives parents the time to get their paperwork in,” Chavez explained.
There has not been an official game or practice in New Mexico since March 14, the final day of the state basketball tournament in Albuquerque. The coronavirus pandemic caused the NMAA to cancel all spring sports seasons soon thereafter, and although the fall sports schedules are completed, there’s no guarantee they’ll start in late August.
The NMAA board voted to permit students with 2019-20 physical exams to compete in 2020-21 — unless one of the following three things occurred: The student suffered a new injury, received a new medical diagnosis or contracted COVID-19.
There is even talk of moving football into the spring months, after basketball.
The much-anticipated return date for athletes and coaches — which is not mandatory, it simply is the earliest date schools can begin to have organized sports activities — comes with numerous guidelines.
There can be no more than six people gathering at a time, inside or outside, with a ratio of five athletes for every coach, and the same students working with the same coach.
Coaches and athletes are supposed to be screened daily for signs or symptoms of COVID-19 prior to a workout. Coaches will have to wear masks during workouts; athletes will not. Coaches must be tested for COVID-19 before they can start phase one; athletes won’t have to be tested but will be monitored daily with temperature taking.
The number of indoor facility pods can’t exceed three at one time. The limit is five for outdoor pods. The NMAA is going to govern summer activities this year — individual school districts would ordinarily handle that task — and the NMAA said there must be a minimum distance of six feet between individuals at all times.
Las Cruces Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Karen Trujillo and Las Cruces district athletic director Ernie Viramontes were two of the four dissenting board votes; both said they felt early July would have been preferable.
“COVID-19 is ever-changing,” NMAA Executive Director Sally Marquez said. “June 15 could look totally different than what we sent out today.”
Marquez said the national federation was largely the driving force behind the guidelines, adding that she spoke to Arizona, Texas, Colorado and Oregon for feedback.
“What we do with these guidelines will determine what happens in the future,” Marquez told the board. “If we go crazy and it doesn’t work, this could have a big effect on what happens in July and August.”
Phase one of this high school sports return is defined by the NMAA as the following: individual skill development and workouts, no contact with others, no sharing of equipment, and no games or scrimmages. There is no known date to begin phase two or phase three. Marquez said the next phase will include the use of weight rooms and larger gatherings.
Football coaches are perhaps going to be the most hamstrung by phase one’s guidelines, given the higher participation numbers. The good news? It’s possible that phase one may last only 2-3 weeks.
“It’s kind of impossible for us to do this phase, to be honest,” said Cleveland High football coach Heath Ridenour, who has nearly 200 players in his successful program. “It’s a tough situation for us right now.”
Football coaches in particular are faced with some proverbial forks in the road. Such as — and this may not bode well for players in younger grades — concentrating more heavily on the varsity roster. With coaches already having lost the past 2½ months in terms of training, weight lifting, football classes and the like, they’re already lagging far behind their normal calendar.
One benefit for football, and soccer is they can use multiple fields, if more than one field is available. There can be five pods on one field and several pods at another. Still, the sessions will have to be staggered, so as to avoid large gatherings of athletes arriving at their school facilities simultaneously.
Marquez said while teams cannot yet occupy weight rooms — that comes in phase two — weights can be hauled outdoors, so long as they are regularly sanitized. The other rules are going to largely prohibit what many coaches would like to do, according to Ridenour.
“Not being able to touch a ball, or a pad, maintaining six feet (between athletes), makes it really difficult to be productive during this phase,” Ridenour said. “But we will find ways to utilize it.”
Baseball and softball coaches have to make sure athletes don’t share balls, or gloves, or bats, and the balls in use will have to be cleaned individually, and regularly.
Out of the sun
Indoor sports like volleyball and basketball face their own challenges.
“There’s a starting point for all of us,” longtime RRHS volleyball coach Toby Manzanares said. “And we’re trying to figure out how we can maximize … individual skill development within our pods of kids. Be flexible, be flexible, be flexible.”
Soccer coaches have a definite advantage in phase one, insomuch as the feet are far more vital than the hands. In soccer and volleyball, each player will have to have his or her own ball.