Cienega football coach Pat Nugent, whose career spans 17 years, said that today was “one of the hardest days of my coaching career because we’re probably not going to play this year.”
Nugent alerted his players and their parents Thursday morning that practice at Cienega will be postponed until further notice.
He did this in response to a letter sent by Pima County Health Department Director Theresa Cullen to local superintendents early Thursday recommending that full-contact practice and competition be postponed “until the spread of COVID-19 has achieved minimal levels of community transmission as defined by the CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) and the ADHS (Arizona Department of Health Services).”
The ADHS benchmarks for minimal levels of community transmission is 10 or less cases out of 100,000 people. The AIA on Sept. 17 changed its metrics to 75 cases out of 100,000 people to allow full-contact practice and competition.
The recent numbers indicate Pima County at about 45 people per 100,000 testing positive for COVID-19.
“Did we cancel the season? No,” Nugent said. “But we know the chance of us playing is one in a million. We do have a chance but it’s not a very good chance.”
Nugent mentioned that 10 or less cases out of 100,000 is unrealistic to the point “it might take two years to reach that number.”
“If our superintendents believed that 10 was going to be the number, we should have never allowed practice to begin with,” he added.
The Vail School Board and other school districts in Southern Arizona still must vote on the matter of canceling the football season. The PCHD also stated that other contact sports recommended to be postponed are soccer, wrestling and basketball.
Local coaches and regional representatives last week put together six- to seven-game football schedules with the hopes of having a season starting Oct. 30.
According to Nugent and other coaches locally, including CDO coach Dustin Peace, the schedule was put together with false hopes. Peace mentioned earlier in the day that an Oct. 30 start was “unrealistic” because of how the local superintendents would react to PCHD recommendations.
“We’re going through the motions knowing we’re never going to play,” Nugent said. “Coaches in this town have been doing their best to keep kids active.
“From our team’s standpoint, it is really difficult. We were loaded this year. It was one of the best teams I’ve ever had. It’s sad for all the kids. That’s the hard part.”
Cienega has 12 known seniors who have received college scholarship offers, the most in Southern Arizona.
“Today is like we lost in the state semifinals and the season for our seniors was over,” Nugent said.
One of the seniors is captain Isaiah Webb, a linebacker who was anxious to return to playing football after missing the second half of last season with a leg injury.
“I’m doing alright. This too shall pass,” Webb said. “I want to be a leader for the city so I’m trying to think of ways I can be. I love the sport and I’m not giving up yet.
“Since Oct. 2 last year (when he became injured), I’ve had my eyes set on balling out this year and I won’t stop fighting. I just want transparency.”
Cienega’s families are “livid,” according to Carlos Flores, father of senior safety and running back C.J. Flores.
The elder Flores mentioned the Vail School District “has no spine” because it won’t make the decision to rebuke the PCHD recommendation and go forward with the season using the AIA benchmark.
“They won’t make that decision,” Carlos Flores said of the Vail School District. “They say they are basing everything on the Pima County’s decision.
“They hide behind the county all of the time. They never take a stance. They have failed the kids.”
Nugent mentioned that Vail superintendent John Carruth has been a proponent of Cienega and Empire going forward with football but Carruth is in solidarity with superintendents of the school districts at Sunnyside, Marana, Sahuarita and TUSD with the decision to play or not play based on the PCHD recommendations.
“I love my superintendent, but the superintendents are the ones making this decision,” Nugent said. “There’s nobody else making these decisions.
“My coaches and I have been practicing the kids for seven weeks now and we’re never going to play a football game if we’re trying to get to 10 cases out of 100,000 people. I took the initiative to tell my kids that we are canceling practice until we are approved to have full contact. And boy has it hit the fan.”
Most of the parents’ ire has been directed at Carruth and the superintendents. According to Nugent, Carruth and the Vail School District received numerous calls Thursday from irate parents.
“It’s not just John Carruth — John Carruth is fighting for our district to play football. He is not getting the support from every superintendent,” Nugent said. “This is not a Vail thing. This is not a John Carruth thing. This is a Pima County thing.”
Webb and his teammates plan to rally against a cancellation of the season.
“We’re all a little down but we have each other’s back,” he said.
When asked what the next step will be, Webb said, “Not sure yet, gonna take the weekend and reflect and make a decision.”
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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.