The Arizona Interscholastic Association executive board voted 5-4 today to cancel winter sports (boys and girls basketball, wrestling and boys and girls soccer) because of the risks involved with high COVID-19 numbers in the state.
The winter sports were originally pushed back to Jan. 18 but members of the executive went forward with the cancellation based on the recommendation of the AIA’s Sports Medicine Advisory Committee.
“If we do not take this recommendation from the SMAC seriously, those numbers are going to be worse. I feel like we need to honor that recommendation. I’m against winter sports at this time,” said Hopi High School athletic directory Ricky Greer, an AIA board member, in the meeting that was shown on a ZOOM call.
According to media reports, Arizona currently has the highest per-capita rate of new COVID-19 infections, with 785 cases per 100,000 people over the past seven days, followed closely by California and Rhode Island.
AIA exec member Tim Carter never has seen an issue so evenly divided on playing or not playing. That’s where EXEC board is today. Carter respectful of all opinions and knows a no-win situation. Carter believes we should not continue with winter sports at this time. #azpreps365
— Les Willsey (@AZPreps365Les) January 8, 2021
The AIA reported in a statement that the SMAC recommended that “hospital capacity be considered an important factor when considering the winter season.” This week, 93 percent of all Intensive Care Unit (ICU) beds and 92 percent of all inpatient beds are in use, leaving concern that injured students may be unable to receive needed care due to a lack of beds or available medical professionals, the statement reads.
“While we understand the Board’s position, we are saddened by this decision, especially considering that club sports are continuing,” AIA executive director David Hines said in the release. “To the best of our knowledge, never in our 100-plus-year history has the AIA canceled an entire season. We want nothing more than for our students to be active in school and participating in interscholastic sports and activities.
“It is my sincerest hope that all Arizonans will follow the CDC and Arizona Health guidelines by wearing masks, washing hands frequently, and practicing social distance to decrease cases and hospitalizations. If for no other reason, I hope we can do it for the kids.”
Superior principal/athletic director William Duarte added, “One last comment I’d like to make: not taking the advice of the SMAC committee would be negligible on our part.”
Some members, including the Chandler Unified School District superintendent Dr. Camille Casteel, voiced concerns of athletes joining club teams that have less regulations of controlling COVID-19.
“I believe our extracurricular activities is a choice and not a requirement. I do believe our students will go elsewhere. They are safer with us because of mitigation compliance,” Casteel said.
Jim Dean, the assistant superintendent of the Dysart School District, added, “My concern is that athletics provides an outlet for our students. It is important to allow winter athletes to continue.”
Sahuaro girls basketball senior standout Alyssa Brown will not be able to chase 3,000 career points — the first boy or girl in the state to achieve that mark — because of the cancellation of winter sports. She ranks 25th in state history with 2,094 career points.
“It’s very upsetting and shocking considering Coach (Steve) Botkin and Sahuaro have been doing everything in their power to keep us healthy and safe,” Brown said. “I plan on strengthening my game and focusing on my academics to prepare me for college.”
Brown, a 6-foot-1 forward who has signed with UNLV, was the 2019-20 Arizona Gatorade Player of the Year after scoring a single-season scoring record of 932 points to help lead Sahuaro to the 4A state championship game and a 28-2 record.
Brown averaged 23.8 points a game with 8.4 rebounds in her career. She scored 31.1 points a game last season.
Salpointe coach Jim Reynolds is coming off a magical season in which he led the Lancers to their first boys basketball state title and his first state championship in 31 years as a coach going back to his storied career at Cincinnati’s Madeira High School.
Reynolds said he can empathize with both sides of the discussion involving the cancellation of winter sports — keeping the athletes and their families safe by not playing, and on the other hand, risking mental anguish of some the athletes, especially the seniors, who have now played their last high school game before the season even began.
“Arizona is in a real bad spot as far as the metrics go right now and you can’t marginalize people losing their lives and things like that,” Reynolds said. “You must have empathy for all. You feel most disappointed for obviously, the seniors. Who would want to lose a grade level of sports?
“A long time ago, when I was in high school, I lived for every sports season.”
Reynolds, in his fourth season at Salpointe after coaching 28 years at Cincinnati, said he will resume plans to have his players to scrimmage among each other to keep their spirits up because he said their mental health is an issue to be concerned about.
“Our guys were prepared and they went hard. They were coachable,” Reynolds said. “You could see the joy they had and just playing and being around other people. One of the things that the pandemic has done, it’s isolated us so much.
“We’ve been kind of trying to have scrimmages every so often just to have something to look forward to. And we’re going to have them still. I just have to figure out how we can best serve these kids.”
Sunnyside boys soccer coach Casey O’Brien, who is also the school’s athletic director, said the cancellation of his team’s season and that of the Blue Devils’ wrestling dynasty “is the worst possible news you can get.”
“We were kind of trying to shoot for a double state championship winner in both sports, but that’s not gonna happen,” said O’Brien, who coached the Blue Devils to the 2018-19 state title and lost in the championship game last season.
“I feel a little worse for (wrestling coach Anthony Leon) because his team has a couple of seniors that if they had a good season, they could have maneuvered into Division I offers,” O’Brien said. “My team has some young talent so I’m optimistic about the future, but it is sad for the seniors. They saw the seniors of the previous two teams play in a championship game and these seniors wanted to have a similar experience.
“They worked hard for that big chance and then all of that work was kind of for nothing.”
Sunnyside’s wrestling team, which won its 33rd state title last season, has two standout seniors — defending 145-pound state champion Sebastian Robles and 120-pound runner-up James Brown — who will now try to catch the eye of Division I recruiters in non-AIA-sanctioned events.
Defending state champions James Williams-Armstrong (106 pounds), Job Lee (113) and Jaime Rivera (132) no longer have the opportunity to be four-time state champions. Williams-Armstrong and Lee are sophomores and Rivera is a junior this year. Rivera, a two-time champ, has already committed to Army.
The Blue Devils’ soccer seniors still have the opportunity to catch the eyes of a small-college recruiters this spring while playing for O’Brien’s Southside FC club team.
“A month ago, our kids couldn’t go to a college showcase as Sunnyside,” O’Brien said. “They can do that with Southside FC. We’ll see what happens from it. We’ll try to play a couple of semipro teams to get our seniors a college showcase. We’ll be as safe as possible. We haven’t had an issue with (COVID-19). Our players have been practicing and working out for three months and it’s been going pretty smooth with no issues.”
In its release, the AIA addressed the possibility of spring sports also being cancelled for essentially the second year in a row. Last year, seasons for baseball, softball and boys and girls track and field were cut short because of COVID-19. Spring sports generally run from March to May.
“It is not possible to know what the specific landscape will look like in future months,” the AIA stated. “If metrics and hospital capacity improve to the levels achieved in the fall, the association anticipates holding a spring sports season.”
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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.