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High-school football is an American institution, one that approaches near-religious status in some parts of the country while in others is looked upon as becoming something of an anachronism. But everywhere the games and their surrounding pageantry and sense of community have endured for more than a century. Until now. Like so many other things in life, high-school sports (and not just football) are under dire threat from a pernicious and potentially deadly virus that just won’t go away.

By this time last year, most local football teams were already two games into their 10-game regular-season schedule. This year, they haven’t even started actual practice yet. And despite carefully worded public pronouncement, nobody—not parents, not student-athletes, not coaches, and not administrators—know exactly when (or if) that is going to happen.

The Arizona Interscholastic Association governs high-school sports in this state and has been working since the pandemic hit last spring, trying to set guidelines that would allow for safe competition in the fall sports (including football, cross country, volleyball, swimming, badminton, and golf). Of those, only golf can be contested using social distancing.

The AIA had initially allowed for limited contact between athletes and coaches during the summer. But after Arizona opened up bars, restaurants and gyms prematurely, the virus roared back to life and the state had the worst COVID-19 numbers in the entire country. The AIA adjusted their guidelines and then set the date of Sept. 7 (which is Labor Day) as the opening day for football practice. But, while Arizona’s numbers are finally heading down, they’re still not where they should be to allow for the opening of most schools, let alone athletic practice and competition.

Accordingly, the AIA has on its website this message: “AIA’s Recommended Guidelines are currently being reviewed and updated based on current information, especially in consideration of the metrics that are now in place. The Guideline will return once the update is completed.” Basically, they don’t know, so we don’t know.

Matt Johnson is just one of the hundreds of unlikely success stories who went through the Amphitheater High School football program under legendary coach Vern Friedli. Not surprisingly, he fashioned his own coaching philosophy after that of his coach and mentor. Most of it centers on hitting the weight room hard on a nearly year-round basis. 

His system works. He coached Ironwood Ridge to a State championship before moving over to neighboring Marana Mountain View. In his first season with Mountain Lions (last year), his team got off to a slow start, but came on strong at the end to reach the state playoffs. He and his players felt that they had a lot of momentum heading into this year, but then the virus struck. 

“Last year we were able to make the playoffs and be competitive,” Johnson said. “Having lost the off-season in the weight room, our goals are to remain competitive. We really need a full off-season to compete toe-to-toe with the more-established programs.”

Like everybody else, he really doesn’t know whether there will be a season and, if so, what it will look like. He just has to see what the AIA hands down to the school districts and then what those districts do with the guidelines. He’s both heartened and heartbroken to see kids trying to scramble on their own to get ready for a season that may or may not happen. 

“From what I can see online,” Johnson says, “the kids have been trying to handle the circumstances the best they can.” 

Armando Soto is the Athletic Director for the Amphi School District and therefore oversees the athletic programs at Amphi, Canyon Del Oro, and Ironwood Ridge High Schools. He has always been a no-nonsense, speak-his-mind kind of guy and so, when asked what the high-school football season will look like, he responds, “I can state unequivocally that I don’t know. There are plans and contingency plans and further contingency plans if the first ones don’t work. But the simple fact is that we don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Soto is like everybody else who is involved in or who even peripherally cares about high-school sports. Everybody wants the kids to be able to play. The problem is that if you get nine caring and thoughtful school administrators in a room, you’re going to get 14 different opinions as to how to make things work.

Joe Paddock, who used to coach at Amphi High, is now the assistant executive director of the AIA. He said that member schools across the state continue to follow the staggered start for fall sports. He says, “Football is still scheduled to start practice on Sept. 7. Game competition and types of practices are dependent on information from the local health services.”

This is seen as a huge roadblock. Football practice isn’t supposed to start until schools open up to in-person instruction and schools aren’t supposed to open up until the three metrics (cases, positivity rate, and COVID-like illness percentage of hospital visits) are in the green over a two-week period. At press time, Pima County had two reds and a green, which is not promising.

There is always the possibility that school superintendents will weigh all of the pressures upon them (from parents and politicians) and decide to plunge ahead. This would allow football practice to start at some time in the future and allow for the shortening an already-truncated regular season. In the meantime, we keep hearing phrases like “fluid situation” and “guardedly optimistic.” 

After talking to coaches and ADs, it just feels like the situation where one is 30 minutes away from his destination for an appointment that is scheduled to start in 10 minutes. You keep driving along as fast (and safely) as possible, while telling yourself, “I’m not late…yet.”

Preparation for the start of high-school football season is progressing according to schedule. The best we can say is that it hasn’t been canceled…yet.

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