To play or not to play? That is the big question - Albuquerque Journal

To play or not to play? That is the big question

Last September Highland and Del Norte tangled in a football game at Milne Stadium. This season there’s uncertainty whether there will be a football season. And if if there is one, maybe it will occur in the spring. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

The question has been preoccupying the thoughts of players, coaches and New Mexico’s prep football fans for months.

Will there or won’t there?

With the first 2020 games scheduled for less than seven weeks from now — Aug. 20 in Albuquerque — will there be a season?

The Journal polled about 25 head coaches around the state, including all 13 coaches in Albuquerque Public Schools, plus Cleveland and Rio Rancho, and numerous other schools inside and outside the metro area, looking for insight.

Answers varied. Uncertainty and frustration was a constant.

“I hate when kids ask me, I hate when parents ask me,” said Clovis High coach Cal Fullerton. “It’s getting kind of tough. You just wish you knew something.”

Responses included a variety of suggestions and what they thought were potential options, including a delayed and shortened season in the fall, or no season at all — and a truncated season in the spring of 2021, an option many coaches said they thought was going to be the eventual outcome.

Of course, football is hardly the only sport that’s in limbo.

“It’s not just about football,” Roswell High football coach Jeff Lynn said emphatically. “We need to come up with a plan so everybody can play.”

Longtime metro-area coach Judge Chavez, now at Valley, said New Mexico’s decision makers have more urgent tasks, and suggested another lockdown may soon be on the horizon.

“They don’t care about athletics right now,” Chavez said. “They’re trying to figure out how to start school. The things we would have to do? It’s not what anybody signed up for.”

The optimists

Perhaps not surprisingly, four new head football coaches in the metro area — Gerry Pannoni at Rio Rancho, Howard Knezevich at Atrisco Heritage, Fernando Salinas at Hope Christian and Bruce Langston at Del Norte — were in the glass-half-full camp.

“I do think we’re gonna have one,” Knezevich said. “Full season or modified season? I don’t know.”

Pannoni came in from Virginia this year to take over the Rams’ elite program.

“My mindset is we’re gonna play in the fall and that’s the way we’re gonna prepare the kids,” Pannoni said. “For the kids, you have to give them something to look forward to.”

Rio Rancho already has seen its season opener, Aug. 22 in Flagstaff, against a team from the Phoenix area, canceled earlier this week.

“I’m gonna say yes, there’s going to be a football season — but that is just for hope,” Langston said. “If we can’t have 30 kids in a classroom, I don’t know how we’re gonna have 60 kids on a football field.”

Hope’s Salinas was perhaps the most optimistic of any coach the Journal spoke with.

“Yes, I do,” he said firmly. “The reason is, I think we can do it safely. The demographics are showing that these kids in their age group are not being affected.”

Veteran Eldorado coach Charlie Dotson tied his answer to the efforts of the New Mexico Activities Association and executive director Sally Marquez, who has made it very clear for months that she wants to give athletes their seasons.

“She’s told everyone that every sport will have a season, and I believe in Sally,” Dotson said. “She’ll find a way.”

Said Los Lunas coach Jeremy Maupin: “I’m in the minority, but I think we will have a season. I just don’t think it will be in the fall. All I know is Sally Marquez has promised us that all seniors will get to play a sport their senior year. They never want to do what they had to do last (school) year again.”

The spring 2021 option, based on what coaches told the Journal, has serious traction. Marquez, in an interview Friday, said the NMAA will announce its intentions in mid-July.

“I think we’ll have a season for sure this year,” St. Pius’ Dave Montoya said. “It just may not be very soon.”

Three coaches even floated that every sport under the NMAA umbrella could be played in a tightly constructed, January-through-June calendar in 2021, with each season lasting approximately two months.

Marquez didn’t confirm or deny this was a possibility.

“I’ve said from Day One, the goal is to play every single sport in 2020-21,” she said.

The spring option

A chunk of the metro-area coaches polled by the Journal landed in this column.

“Not on the regular timeline, I don’t,” La Cueva coach Brandon Back said. “I think the governor and some other advisers are afraid to deal with it. But we’re still hoping.”

Back was among those who thought a spring season was possible, and perhaps even preferable to this uneasy waiting game that everyone has been forced to play.

“I do not (think we’ll play in the fall),” Volcano Vista coach Chad Wallin said. “I don’t know how you can play football and keep germs off each other, sweat, fluid exchange. I don’t know how you do it.”

Like Back, Wallin thinks the spring is the least objectionable way to go. Cleveland’s Heath Ridenour, Rio Grande’s Dennis Minidis and West Mesa’s Anthony Ansotigue, too.

“It’s gonna be hard for us to be physically ready in a month’s time,” Ansotigue said. “Looking at the way things are going in Texas and Arizona, I don’t think there’s any possible way you can have a season (this fall).”

Said Ridenour: “If the plug gets pulled, we’ll move to that spring option and work the logistics of what that’s gonna look like.”

Highland coach Phil Lovato and Cibola coach Rod Williams were more skeptical than some of their peers.

“As much as I would like to say ‘yes,’ ” Lovato said, “I don’t think there’s gonna be a season.”

“They’ve canceled the balloon fiesta, the Isotopes season, those are major things,” added Williams. “Why would they allow high school to go on and potentially jeopardize coaches and players?”

Sandia’s Chad Adcox was on board, as well.

“I don’t see how they’re gonna have high school sports,” Adcox said.

Albuquerque High coach Tim Johnson was one of the few that preferred to stay neutral and keep his pulse at a normal rate.

“Sitting around stressing about whether we will or won’t … it will take a toll on us as coaches,” Johnson said. “Which, in turn, will carry over to the players.”

Widening the circle

From outside the metro area, the mood was similar.

“I don’t,” said Fullerton of Clovis. “It scares me to death for those kids that play and those kids that depend on football.”

Texas teams on the Wildcats’ schedule are inquiring with Fullerton about whether Clovis will have a season.

“It’s all kind of up in the air, man,” he said, sighing.

Roswell’s Lynn said he can’t see New Mexico having football in the fall.

“Too many unknowns at this point with the virus,” he said. “But we need to start planning right now. It would be great if New Mexico came out and was proactive and said, we have a plan.”

Las Cruces earlier this week suspended summer activities until July 13. Los Lunas did, as well.

“It seems like the push is moving our higher-risk sports to the spring, and shift whatever you can to the fall,” Las Cruces High coach Mark Lopez said.

Much depends on whether schools do a hybrid student model starting in August, or decide to instruct online, Lopez said, and the upcoming flu season is almost certain to severely complicate things.

“Much better opportunity to do it in the spring,” Lopez said.

Centennial’s Aaron Ocampo said “we’ve got to be at 100 percent at school for football to happen.”

Manzano coach Phillip Martinez said it’s been a seesaw for men in his profession.

“Some days I think yes. I have faith that it’ll happen, whether it’s a shortened season, a delayed season, a full season,” he said. “Other days, I’m very doubtful. I’m on the fence every day.”

Cleveland’s Ridenour spoke for nearly all his colleagues when he said:

“We just want some answers,” he said.

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