Sunnyside coach Glenn Posey was on the Blue Devils’ football field this afternoon barking out directions to his players he thought he would never have to yell: “Put your mask on!”
He asked every player when they arrived how many donation-drive cards for discounts to local restaurants they have sold to help fund the program. He did not have an underling tabulating the total on a clipboard. He took care of that. All of his assistants were administering the workouts for the various positions, well separated on the field to maintain social-distancing COVID-19 regulations.
Posey’s fervor was business as usual from the standpoint of directing the operation at his alma mater toward a potential football season.
“I got a little pep in my step today,” he said. “It’s the brightest light we’ve seen so far, man.”
Posey was talking about the Arizona Interscholastic Association’s Executive Board adjusting a benchmark metric today that created optimism for coaches and players throughout the state that a football season in the fall may actually happen.
The AIA, consulting with its Sports Medicine Advisory Committee (SMAC), adjusted the benchmark for a safe return to football by allowing the metric of 75 people or less per 100,000 of testing positive for COVID-19 in a county instead of the previous metric of 10 or less out of 100,000.
Pima County’s numbers last week indicated 47 people per 100,000 were testing positive.
The significant shift of 7.5 times the previous amount all but assures contact in practice and ultimately competition starting with games scheduled Oct. 2.
The AIA stated that it consulted with “a number of” executive leaders at other state associations that are currently playing football.
“Consideration of each of the metrics, especially hospitalization, it was determined that a metric of 75/100,000 could be established for football to begin competition,” an AIA statement reads.
“Several states have similar COVID-19 rates compared to Arizona and those states are currently playing football with safeguards put in place by their executive boards. With the advantage of viewing these games nationwide for several weeks, it is believed the AIA can successfully and safely conduct football with this new benchmark by complying with the updated sport specific modifications.”
Posey knows the metric change brings only a small “pep in the step” for his hope the Blue Devils will play this season. He said the “last hurdle” is the Pima County Health Department coming to an understanding that local high schools can play under the new benchmark established by the AIA and the SMAC.
Sunnyside Unified School District (SUSD) superintendent Steve Holmes during last week’s board meeting said that “a strong likeliness” existed a football season would not take place based on PCHD benchmarks.
“There is no contact to be made and there will be no competition for football unless counties move into the minimal amount of spread,” Holmes said.”Right now, we are in the ‘moderate.’ So what’s been communicated to coaches at this point is that we’re trying not to disappoint our athletes around football at this stage but there is a strong likeliness there will not be a football season here this fall unless it gets moved or postponed until later in the year.
“It is highly unlikely that we will move out of the moderate phase for quite some time. It may actually take us until there is an actual vaccine in place for us to move out of the moderate phase.”
Time will tell if AIA changing its metrics today will affect the outlook of playing this fall for Sunnyside and Desert View, the two high schools in SUSD.
“What our school board has been told by the Pima County Health Department looks bleak, but now that the AIA metrics have been changed, and these are reachable numbers, I think Pima County is in a position where they will have to listen to the voters,” Posey said. “Our parents are going to have to fight for the kids to have a right to play.”
Canyon del Oro coach Dustin Peace was a driving force of Southern Arizona coaches who requested that the AIA change the season to the spring to allow for more time for COVID-19 to come under control with a probable vaccine developed by then. The coaches are concerned a positive outbreak of COVID-19 may occur now and seasons will be canceled.
After the AIA decided last month to keep football in the fall, the Southern Arizona coaches shifted their request to have a division of only local schools starting their season in late October or early November with a city or regional championship in December.
With the benchmark change today, Southern Arizona coaches of public schools now face the challenge of playing earlier in October, well behind in their preparation compared to Maricopa County schools, which were allowed to work out on their campuses since June. Local private schools Salpointe and Pusch Ridge have also had team activities for the last two to three months.
“When the AIA changes something 7.5 times greater than what they did two weeks ago, that makes no sense to me at all,” Peace said. “The change is what the people want to hear, no doubt about it, holistically.
“When one kid tests positive, questions will come up, ‘Did this kid have contact with this kid?’ It’s going to be a circus. When we come back to school (with a hybrid model for the Amphi School District on Oct. 12), it’s going to be even more difficult because you have more kids involved.”
Tucson High School coach Justin Argraves is reserved in his reaction to the AIA metric change today.
“I think it definitely puts teams across the state in a better position to participate in competitions,” Argraves mentioned. “Ultimately though, district leaderships across the state will have to make a decision based on what they feel is best for student safety.
“It will be interesting to see how University of Arizona COVID-19 cases play into the metrics.”
Argraves said his team continues to operate with Phase 2 conditioning. No date has been given yet for when the Badgers and other TUSD schools will be able to practice with pads.
Peace said CDO will start practicing with helmets on Monday but must continue without contact.
“Obviously we’re not hitting and we’re also not touching another player, not sitting up, not wrapping up, not pushing up — anything you would do with blocking, anything you would normally teach,” Peace said. “Even though we’re in helmets, we’re still not working the fundamentals to get ready for a football game.
“I think we’re still a ways away from a game. I know people are eager to talk about scheduling. If we can get into pads, that will be a great step. If we can touch people in pads, that’s the next step. It may become a situation of, ‘Okay, this week, you’ll play this team.'”
AIA executive director David Hines said in a statement he believes schools can play in the fall based on how other states continue to compete.
“Seeing the positive results in other states was a big help to reach this conclusion,” Hines said. “It’s a testament to those associations for putting proper rules in place so football can happen. We have similar numbers and similar safety recommendations as compared to those states.”
Maricopa County’s metrics last week were similar to Pima County’s — 42 people testing positive out of 100,000 — despite having nearly four times as many people than in Southern Arizona. The population in Maricopa County is 4.5 million compared to 1.06 million in Pima County.
Posey believes based on Pima County’s favorable case numbers compared to Maricopa County that schools in Southern Arizona should be playing if Phoenix-area schools are allowed to play.
“I think we as coaches and parents, we need to rally and fight for our kids and fight for our season,” Posey said. “We need to find someone at the Pima County Health Department who will open up and listen to us.
“We have a great opportunity to get back to normal as much as we can and celebrate football. America is a great place to live despite the pandemic, so we’re super excited for the opportunity for the kids. They’ve done a great job. They do what we’re asking them to do.”
Marana coach Louie Ramirez mentioned the Tigers’ tentative plan is to start using pads on Monday, and he is hopeful their season can kick off Oct. 23.
“It’s going to be interesting to see the direction the superintendents want to take,” he said. “It’s unfortunate because it’s out of our hands. The coaches aren’t making those decisions. We don’t get paid enough to do that.
“I understand everybody is looking out for the safety of the kids but one of the major parts they’re missing is the mental health of the kids. It helps the kids a lot to be out here interacting with each other, running around and getting out of the house. That’s important.”
The AIA states that member schools and districts should have their own guidelines if the issue of a player on any fall sports team tests positive for COVID-19 or is believed to have been exposed to the disease.
“The guidelines should also address any rise in the positivity rates or an increase in hospitalizations as described in the metrics,” the statement reads. “The AIA Recommended Guidelines for Return to Athletic Activity provides specific recommendations on these issues for schools to consider and implement. Most critical in these recommendations is the cardiac evaluation of a student-athlete that has tested positive for COVID-19.”
Posey said he interacts with his players and their parents daily. He added that the parents of the more than 80 players in Sunnyside’s program from the freshman team to varsity have signed a waiver to allow their sons to play well aware of the risks involved.
“All of us coaches are in the same fight together for our kids,” Posey said. “We have some great coaches in Tucson that do a really good job, and we’ve got some good kids.
“We can have more opportunities for these kids to go on to college and earn football scholarships if we can have the season. We want our seniors to have that chance. We’ve got some guys that we think could have a great year and really shine. If they had this opportunity, it might open some doors that never would have been open for them.”
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.