APS decision is devastating to sidelined athletes

An Eldorado High School flag flies at half staff at the Dickman home in Northeast Albuquerque. Brody Dickman is a kicker for the Eagles. (Courtesy of Shawn Dickman)

These four words aptly sum up the prevailing mood among Albuquerque Public Schools athletes on Thursday:

“It’s like someone died,” Highland High athletic director John Barnhill said.

Indeed, across the city, from the West Side to the South Valley to the Northeast Heights, athletes in APS – especially the ones in a fall sport – were being forced to confront the very real possibility that they won’t get any closure to their prep careers.

When the APS board on Wednesday night voted to keep high school students in a remote learning model for the rest of the spring semester, that very likely – but perhaps not definitely – put an end to the district’s hopes to contest any of the four fall sports: football, soccer, volleyball and cross country.

In the fall of 2019, there were just over 3,350 boys and girls playing a fall sport at APS’ 13 high schools.

APS has not technically opted out of a fall sports schedule with the New Mexico Activities Association. The four fall sports seasons were pushed back to this semester due to the pandemic, and at current the outlook is bleak.

“APS is not giving up on fall sports yet,” Superintendent Scott Elder told the Journal on Thursday night. “We’re gonna pursue every avenue to get our kids to play.”

APS has a board meeting scheduled for Monday. Elder said he has added an agenda item in executive session (meaning not for public eyes) to discuss athletics at that meeting.

Moreover, if Bernalillo County transitions from its yellow health status to green, APS will expedite the process of getting students into a hybrid model, Elder said. And that would re-open the door for sports to return.

“It’s hard, when you’re pushing for your last few moments of high school,” said Highland volleyball player Kristian Thomas. “This was gonna be my very last year playing competitively.”

For the moment, if you want to find a working hybrid, look no further than to the senior athletes interviewed by the Journal on Thursday. They expressed a mixture of frustration, anger, disappointment and heartache.

“Real dark times,” Eldorado High football player Nick Petty said. “For now, we’re all pretty angered and we’re just really searching for answers.”

He wasn’t alone.

“I felt heartbroken,” said senior swimmer and beach volleyball player Ariana Gonzales of Volcano Vista. “I felt they (the APS board) had given up hope and forgot what the main reason for the board was, and that’s the students.”

The mood among her and her teammates Thursday?

“Loss of hope,” she said. “Disgusted.”

Many athletes watched Wednesday night’s APS board meeting. Others found out about its aftermath through friends, and others still learned about it Thursday morning.

“What I’m feeling is there’s no support for the Class of 2021 like there was for the Class of 2020,” Atrisco Heritage wrestler Emilio Cordova said. “We’re just kind of still praying, hoping we have a season. … I want to feel like a senior instead of just sitting on my couch doing school work from home.”

While for now APS can’t do fall sports – and Los Lunas Schools has already been forced to opt out earlier this week, as has Belen – Rio Rancho Public Schools on Thursday announced that its re-entry plan will allow athletes to do fall sports.

This further boils the blood of many Albuquerque athletes, as they train envious eyes on dozens of schools around the state – not to mention most every other state in the country – who have pushed forward with high school sports in some fashion or another.

“It’s been one crazy ride,” said Volcano Vista quarterback Johnny Herrera. “They just dangled a carrot over us for a while and led us on a little bit, which hurts a little bit more.”

APS athletes will continue to do their schooling remotely for now, much as they want to get back to class.

“Online high school is really hard,” said Jasmine Anaya, a member of La Cueva’s dance squad. “All student-athletes wanted was at least some good news out of this entire school year.”

The Journal asked the governor’s office for a reaction to the APS situation as it pertains to athletics. An email statement reads in part: “The Public Education Department has empowered school districts to make the decision to safely return to a hybrid model if and when they are ready and will continue to work with districts across the state to keep educators and students safe and engaged in the classroom.”

A statement Thursday from the state’s Public Education Department secretary, Dr. Ryan Stewart, read in part: “We know this is a difficult decision, with many local complexities, but we remain optimistic that both in-person learning and in-person extracurricular activities will continue to expand throughout the spring.”

Several athletes the Journal spoke to Thursday were upset with adult decision-makers both in Santa Fe and in Albuquerque.

“It was extremely disappointing to see some of the board members that should be advocating for students but weren’t,” said Cibola soccer player and golfer Lauryn Volza, a strong proponent for the state having high school sports, even during the pandemic. Along those lines, she wrote an editorial that was published in the Journal last year, directed at Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. “It was really disappointing to see most of them couldn’t care less.”

Seniors – and also rising juniors – hoped to have a season to help cement their future at a college.

“I was hoping to add highlights to send to schools,” said Sandia High senior soccer player Luis Oaxaca, “and to get that Division I offer. I don’t have that option anymore.”

Volcano Vista’s Gonzales said APS not playing sports will have repercussions.

“It’s gonna drive a lot of talent and intelligent (students) out of New Mexico,” she said. “People will seek opportunities elsewhere.”

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