It’s 5:20 on a Tuesday afternoon, just 10 minutes before the tipoff of the first game of the year for the Amphi girls basketball team. It’s three months to the day from when official practice for winter sports was original scheduled to begin and more than two months later than when the first game of the season would have taken place under normal circumstances. But, this is life in the Time of COVID and, considering the situation, it’s all good.
The huge Amphi gym seems even more cavernous than usual. (Twenty years ago, when I helped coach Amphi’s girls to the only conference championship in school history, we used to beg the Administration to let us play our home games in the old, and much-smaller, gym. You get 100 people in that small gym, things can get raucous. A hundred people in the big gym feels like a library.) On this day, 100 people in the gym would have seemed like Woodstock. It would literally take under 30 seconds to count everybody in the gym.
Besides the people necessary for the game to happen (players, coaches, refs, scorekeepers, and athletic trainers), the only people in the building are some guy from the visiting Marana team, sitting way up high to film the game; an adult from Amphi publications, taking photos; and standing up on the top concourse, taking in the surreal scene, is Amphi Athletic Director David Humphreys. He has a full appreciation of all that went into making this game happen—the testing for the virus, the contact tracing, the juggling of academic schedules, barely a week of preseason practice, and the arm-twisting of the Arizona Interscholastic Association, which had originally canceled all winter sports but then did a 180 after intense public pressure.
The off-again/on-again nature of the COVID-plagued season has taken a toll on numbers, which had been dropping in recent years, anyway, due to the lure/stranglehold on volleyball players by the club team that operate near year-round these days. (These days, the all-around athlete who plays volleyball and basketball is pretty much a unicorn. Club volleyball literally starts the day after the high-school volleyball state championships.)
Due to the incredibly late start, the schools only have five weeks to get in as many games as possible. There have already been cancellations of varsity games, and, at the lower levels, it’s a sad mishmash. Ironwood Ridge and Flowing Wells have JV teams, but no freshman squads. Mountain View and Canyon Del Oro have freshman teams, but no JV. Marana has all three squads, but Amphi only has enough kids for one team.
While some school districts are going with the AIA’s suggestion that it’s OK for each player to have two parents attend the home games, the Amphi District has decided not to allow it, at least for now. Last Friday, the AIA, citing a slight improvement in the statewide COVID metrics, said that visiting players can have two parents or guardians in attendance, but added that “it is at the discretion of the home school whether or not parent/legal guardian spectators are permitted.”
Everyone in the gym is masked, including the players in the game. That’s got to be brutal, especially considering the fact that virus protocols prohibited pre-season team conditioning. Each player was probably urged to condition on her own and we all know how well that is likely to go.
Heading into the game, the outcome was probably a toss-up. Marana had gotten in a couple games in the previous week, splitting the two contests, while Amphi had the home-court advantage, albeit they would be playing in front of hundreds of fans who all showed up disguised as empty bleachers.
Amphi did have another advantage. The Panthers had their entire starting lineup back from last year, when they went 12-14, the best record for the program in nearly 20 long and frustrating years.
Once the game starts, Amphi got off to a blazing start, raining three-pointers, including three NBA-distance shots from a kid with the all-time great name of Knowledge Smith. The Panthers quickly took a double-digit lead and looked to blow the game wide open. But the visiting Tigers settled down, scored a few easy buckets inside and kept the game close.
In the second half, Amphi’s shooting cooled off a bit and Marana came all the way back to tie the score a couple times. But the Tigers were troubled by some spotty free-throw shooting and never were able to take the lead. Amphi used a late spurt to break a tie and pull out to a 52-45 win.
Both teams count themselves lucky for having played. That same night, someone on the Marana boys’ team tested positive and the entire program was shut down for 10 days, costing them five games.
EXTRA POINTS: We’re coming up on a quarter-century and Julie Brase of Catalina Foothills is still the leading scorer in the history of high-school girl basketball in Arizona. The other Tucsonans in the Top 10 all-time are Alexis Cortez of Tucson High at No. 6 and Olivia Snyder of Green Fields Country Day at No. 9…Alyssa Brown of Tucson Sahuaro High had an outside chance of passing Brase. She would have had to average more than 25 points a game over a 30-game schedule, one that would have included two in-season tournaments and a deep run in the state tournament (Sahuaro lost in the state finals last year). Sahuaro managed to piece together a 17-game regular-season schedule, playing a brutal four games a week, but they have already had a couple pandemic-related cancellations and may get more… Sahuaro hammered Ironwood Ridge last week, 67-13, with Brown scoring 28 points in a time-shortened game… At press time, the Pima College women’s basketball team was hoping to get in its season opener this week. Their first three games were postponed due to the pandemic protocols.