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Lobos, Aggies unable to practice while most of NCAA preps for hoops season

NMSU sophomore Will McNair goes up for a shot with assistant head coach James Miller looking on during a group workout in July in Las Cruces. (Courtesy NMSU Athletics)

Like most of us, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said Thursday, she is a sports fan.

And recent positive developments across the country trending toward safe return-to-play decisions amid ongoing coronavirus concerns had the governor telling residents they should be “cautiously optimistic” that New Mexico, too, can soon resume sports with some form of normalcy.

Just not yet.

“We’re seeing lots of explosions of cases, and we’re seeing college outbreaks that are still hugely problematic,” Lujan Grisham noted. “So, as that as a backdrop, I think that the NCAA is responding to positive professional sports outcomes where … we’re testing, we’re aggressive about COVID-safe practices and (there are) these sort of safe, I’m calling them pods where the athletes and their families agree to isolate themselves and to be very, very, very COVID safe and strict adherence to those policies, makes a difference.

“It’s harder to do in college, but I think that the discussions today are giving rise to states like ours that are in a good place (based on COVID data) should be cautiously optimistic that as other states and colleges are coming to those conclusions, that we might be in that position as well.”

The NCAA on Wednesday announced the start of the 2020-21 men’s and women’s college basketball seasons with be Nov. 25. And, as expected since the state still has a highly passionate and involved fan base for New Mexico and New Mexico State basketball, Lujan Grisham was asked about the likelihood those two schools can play by late November.

But for the Aggie and Lobo men and women, the more pressing issue for now isn’t about whether the state will be ready to let them play games by the NCAA’s newly announced Nov. 25 start date of the upcoming season. They aren’t even yet allowed to have full team practices of groups of more than 10 at a time. With NCAA requirements for coaches and trainers to be on hand, that doesn’t even allow for two five-person teams to run drills or play against each other. Most states with Division I basketball teams the Aggies and Lobos will face this season are already practicing in full groups on a limited basis. Next week, the NCAA allows on-court instruction to increase. On Oct. 14, full practices begin.

At Thursday’s weekly COVID-19 update conference, Lujan Grisham relaxed the state’s public health order so as to allow “youth sports” to resume practicing, but in groups no larger than 10 people at a time.

The change does not relax that same restriction that has been in place for high school and college athletes across the state for several months and, to date, apply to all sports in New Mexico – except for the practice sessions of the New Mexico United professional soccer team, which, with the governor’s blessing, has been having full practice and training sessions since July. It then was deemed medically unsafe for them not to train for their competitions.

“Gatherings of larger than 10 are prohibited,” Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett told the Journal. “That is not changing in the next public health order (effective Friday). Collegiate practices should be minimizing contact and (conducted) in groups of less than 10, as before.”

But the Governor did offer kudos, of sorts, for the way they’ve been utilizing COVID-safe practices so far in their limited, small group workout sessions.

“We are all sports fans,” Lujan Grisham said. “… And I’m a Lobo alum. And so I really enjoy all of our college sports and the positive competition among our universities and colleges. And frankly, I really appreciate that our institutions of higher education have been good, solid COVID-safe, strong partners in making a number of independent decisions to postpone college sports and to do everything in terms of distance learning to really be safe.”

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