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High school sports: Fans given green light for return to local gyms

Eldorado and West Mesa boys basketball teams play to an empty gym on Wednesday night. Starting Friday, fans will again be allowed in games. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

On Thursday night across the metro area, high school gymnasiums will be largely silent as varsity basketball games unfold without fans, as they have been doing since the start of this short season.

The silence is expected to end on Friday.

The state on Wednesday announced that it expects Bernalillo County, home of next week’s state tournament championship games, to graduate to a “green” health code status on Friday.

A shift from “yellow” to “green” would allow schools in Albuquerque that have Friday night games to open their doors — literally — to basketball fans for the first time this season. The “green” status would translate to 25 percent capacity.

“It was like telling them that Christmas was tomorrow,” said Del Norte High boys coach Jeron McIntosh, whose Knights do have a scheduled home game Friday night against Cibola. He told his happy team after practice Wednesday. “They’re super excited about it.”

If Bernalillo County remains “green” when the next regularly scheduled health map comes out next Wednesday, then the Pit would be able to welcome fans for the 10 state title games. Those games are scheduled Thursday, Friday and Saturday of next week.

The Pit’s capacity for the lower bowl is 12,000, meaning about 3,000 fans could be allowed in the building. The capacity for the entire building is 15,411, including the upper level which is rarely utilized for prep games.

“I was excited for our parents and our student-athletes, that they’d be able to watch their kids in some of the last games of their careers,” New Mexico Activities Association executive director Sally Marquez said. “I was more excited for the state, moving in a positive direction.”

There haven’t been any paying spectators for a prep basketball game in Bernalillo County, Sandoval County or Valencia County since Wednesday, March 11, 2020, the second week of state basketball at the Pit. There were no fans for the final three days of that event, including championship games in 10 divisions, as the pandemic began to take hold.

But now, fans can return to enjoy this season’s stretch run.

“I’d like to think fans are appreciative of this opportunity given to us,” said the coach of Volcano Vista’s undefeated girls basketball team, Lisa Villareal. “Given that they haven’t been in the gym for quite some time. It’s an exciting time.”

What’s more, if Bernalillo and Sandoval counties both go “green” on Friday and stay that way through at least Tuesday, teams that expect to gain a high seed, and thus a quarterfinal home game, for the state tournament — like Volcano Vista’s girls, Del Norte’s boys and Cleveland’s boys — can have fans in their gyms on Tuesday for that quarterfinal round.

“It’s a huge deal,” Storm coach Sean Jimenez said. Then, echoing McIntosh’s comment, Jimenez added, “It was like Christmas morning, like, my parents got me THIS? It was unbelievable.”

Bernalillo County has been stuck on a “yellow” health level for months, a level that has precluded fans from attending indoor high school sporting events, like basketball, volleyball and wrestling.

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