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Schedule mayhem for high school sports takes over in N.M.

Albuquerque High’s Cristian Nava, right celebrates with teammates after winning the 5A State title in November. New high school soccer dates could overlap key spring dates in club soccer. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal File)

There is a calendar. Now, the race is on to fill it up.

High school athletic directors across New Mexico, given a lay of the land by the New Mexico Activities Association, are actively seeking to obtain dates and games for a 2020-21 school year that will, across the board, have fewer games, meets, tournaments and matches than they’d normally have due to COVID-19.

“Everyone is scrambling,” said Albuquerque Public Schools district AD Kenny Barreras.

“For the most part, when the (NMAA) announced (the calendar), everyone started calling, texting, emailing, trying to get games in every sport,” Rio Rancho High AD Vince Metzgar said.

There are inherent challenges embedded in this process. Which sports get their schedules filled first? Will schools play full, if paradoxically abbreviated, schedules? And if they do, how do programs cram in all the games they’d like to play given the tighter time window they’ve been given to play those schedules?

Barreras’ staff at APS unquestionably faces the most arduous assignment, since APS has 13 public high schools. Moreover, many other districts — like Rio Rancho, Santa Fe, Los Lunas and Las Cruces — regularly maintain nondistrict scheduling relationships with APS.

“Other (schools) are jumping on whatever they can. They just can’t wait for anybody,” said Cleveland High AD Matt Martinez. “You can’t pick and choose.”

Metzgar said Rio Rancho is waiting on APS to complete basketball, soccer and volleyball schedules.

Down the road, soccer could become an interesting case study, as NMAA executive director Sally Marquez realizes the new dates for high school soccer basically overlap with key spring dates in club soccer. Therefore, high schools may be looking to craft a slate of games to accomodate the needs of players to juggle both.

“If there is any sport I may reduce,” Metzgar said, “it is soccer.”

Balancing act

Barreras said APS is scheduling sports in the order in which they were arranged by the NMAA, meaning cross country and volleyball this fall, both beginning in early October, maintain the “highest priority,” he said.

But, Barreras said, even this approach has its obstacles, since the last weekend of regular-season volleyball coincides with Thanksgiving week.

“I’m waiting for the district chairs to decide what they’ll do for that weekend. They’ll have to figure that out real quick,” Barreras said.

Then, he added, APS will embark on scheduling basketball and swimming — both are set to begin the first week in January — and then the district will move its attention towards football and soccer, which begin in late February (soccer) and early March (football).

In and of itself, this is unique, since football is usually the first schedule to be completed, with APS normally releasing the fall football dates around March.

Rio Rancho Public Schools and Los Lunas Schools, both of which have two high schools, are planning to schedule full seasons. For 2020-21 only, “full” is defined as seven in football (down from 10). Basketball is down from 26 to 18. Baseball and softball are down from 26 to 20. Soccer is down from 20 to 14.

The NMAA has eliminated regular-season tournaments and overnight travel for the upcoming school year.

“It’s been a challenge. We’ve had to start from scratch,” Los Lunas district AD Wilson Holland said. “We’re just trying to get kids playing again. If we can get any season started, that’s a win-win.”

In a nod to financial constraints, APS for many years has in the major team sports been scheduling slightly less the maximum. Boys and girls basketball teams, for example, plus baseball and softball teams, have been playing 24 regular-season games.

This trend, Barreras said, is likely to continue.

“I don’t think it will be the max,” he said, adding that it is possible that the 13 varsity football programs in APS may play just six regular-season games.

If that were to come to fruition, the Albuquerque members of District 2-6A — and there are five of them — would possibly not get a nondistrict game.

The APS budget from the last fiscal year, which ended June 30, already was “reduced significantly,” according to Barreras. “From the time a budget was made in March, two cuts were needed just to get us to the start of this school year.”

Even with fewer games translating into lower expenses, monetary concerns are on most everyone’s mind.

“We survive on bringing in $1.2 million in revenue, and now we have the potential of not seeing much, or any, of that,” Barreras said. “It will be a tremendous challenge, and I don’t have the answers.”

Mix and match

Among the individual sports, scheduling football is proving to be a chore for some. Even for the state’s elite.

Martinez and Storm football coach Heath Ridenour had a rough time finding two nondistrict opponents for the defending Class 6A state champions.

It wasn’t until late Friday that Cleveland secured those two: a high-profile road game at Los Lunas on March 4 to open the season, and a road trip in Week 2 at Kirtland Central. Then Cleveland will have five, District 1-6A contests.

To this end, many districts are seeking to set their district schedules first, then work backwards toward the start of the season. However, an additional complication is whether a district has an even number of football-playing schools (Districts 1-6A and 3-6A have six apiece) or an odd number of teams. District 2-6A now has seven members with Santa Fe and Albuquerque High coming aboard, so that means six league games — and a single bye week to (possibly) be filled for La Cueva, Sandia, Eldorado, Manzano and AHS.

“The bye weeks are the games that are hard to fill because everyone has a different number of teams and different byes,” Las Cruces district AD Ernie Viramontes recently told the Las Cruces Sun-News.

Some football rivalries are remaining intact. Despite Las Cruces and Mayfield now being in different football classes, the Bulldawgs and Trojans will continue the state’s most celebrated rivalry and play each other in 2021.

But the decades-long rivalry game between Clovis and Hobbs is going on hiatus. Clovis will instead open the 2021 season against defending Class 5A state champ Roswell, then play six games in District 2-6A.

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