Masking up on the prep football field: mandated, not popular - Albuquerque Journal

Masking up on the prep football field: mandated, not popular

Hope Christian quarterback Hunter Peterson and Huskies assistant coach Lyle Rittman go through their paces while wearing masks. They’re mandatory in all sports except swimming. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Among the hot-button topics related to New Mexico’s condensed high school football season is this one:

The face masks behind the face mask.

“It’s tough to run in one,” Cleveland High football coach Heath Ridenour said. “I can’t imagine kids playing football in one.”

When the state’s five-weeks-long spring season kicks off on Friday night, eyes are the only part of the face that are supposed to be visible. New Mexico has a mask mandate for all athletes during competition.

It is uncharted territory. Although football players have been practicing and/or conditioning in masks for months, full-contact, full-speed regular-season games are another animal altogether.

“The key thing is getting used to it, getting (the mask) in the right position,” said Las Cruces High senior quarterback Marcos Lopez. “If it’s not, that’s when it’s really a problem. It covers your eyes sometimes and comes down sometimes and doesn’t cover your nose.”

This issue literally has layers. Football players also have to wear mouthpieces under the masks that are underneath the masks.

And players often take them out between snaps — especially quarterbacks like Lopez. That option won’t reasonably exist this spring.

“Nobody likes it,” Farmington coach Jeff Dalton said, “but we’ll adapt to it the best we can. We’ve trained with them and been prepared for this for a long time. I think everyone will have different personal feelings about it.”

New Mexico is not the only state that’s gone this route. Regarding impact, consider this comment from a Michigan prep football player from last fall:

“It is definitely a struggle. It makes it hard to breathe and you get tired faster. The worst part of it is, once you start sweating and your mask gets wet, it makes it even tougher to breathe. One time last Friday, I came off the field and just rung it out and the sweat just came pouring out.”

Multiple masks will be available on every sideline. The types of mask will likely vary.

“I kind of ditched my mask concerns back in the fall when we got in the weight room,” Estancia coach Stewart Burnett said. “I was worried about how they were gonna be able to function … but these kids … they just roll with it.”

But they’ll need to be diligent.

Head coaches will have to ensure their players are following the mask guidelines, both on the field and on the sidelines. Several said they are keen to observe how game officials in New Mexico will handle things.

“Very curious,” Bernalillo coach John Cobos said. “In practice, it’s one of those things I’m always having to do, (telling kids) to put your mask over your mouthpiece.”

New Mexico Activities Association associate director Dusty Young said officials will be monitoring mask wearing the way they would any other piece of equipment. If, Young said, an athlete is not wearing their mask properly, or if they are having a problem with their mask, they’ll be asked to leave the field to get the issue resolved.

But transgressions are not expected to be penalized. This mirrors Michigan, where officials began the season with no authority to enforce mask wearing, or penalizing a team if a player, or players, are lax in wearing them.

On the field, who stands to have their routines disrupted more, linemen in the trenches or skill-position athletes?

“There’s a huge amount of complexities,” Oñate football coach Steve Castille said. “You have these kids reaching up into their own mouth and their nose almost after every play. Especially the linemen who are shaking each other. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense (to wear them), at the end of the day.”

Athletes in every NMAA-sanctioned sport — swimmers are the obvious exception — will have to wear masks until told differently by the state. They can not wear gaiters. Officials and coaches are hopeful that the mask mandate will eventually be lifted before the end of this semester as the number of COVID-19 cases continues to fall around the state.

For now, the bottom line for players is that they must integrate the masks into their competitions and adapt.

“We had the talk,” Ridenour said. “They know if we don’t do this right, then we won’t get to play.”

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