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High school sports across Pima County are returning to practice in anticipation for the fall season after the Arizona Interscholastic Association gave the green light to proceed in early September as state metrics show COVID-19 cases on a downward trend.

Tucson Unified School District recently announced fall sports like golf, cross-country and swimming can begin competitive play, “effective immediately,” since they meet social distancing requirements while having minimal contact. Other county school districts like Catalina Foothills, Amphitheater and Marana Unified are also working on bringing those sports back for the fall season.

However, the Pima County Health Department is putting the brakes on sports with potentially high transmission rates—like football and volleyball—until the Old Pueblo reaches minimum levels of community spread. Athletes of those sports are allowed to practice and condition as a team, but full contact practice is not authorized and no match-ups have been scheduled for the fall season.

“Fall sports is a hot topic,” TUSD Superintendent Gabrial Trujillo said at last Wednesday’s school board meeting. “No superintendent is taking that decision lightly and doing the best each superintendent can to keep their community and (school) boards updated.” 

Trujillo said health department officials are watching two variables before approving the fall season for high school contact sports—an increase in cases following Labor Day weekend celebrations and the first full month of University of Arizona back in session. However, there is a good chance the season could be up and running by Oct. 19 if all goes well, said the superintendent. 

“There was some good news from my meeting with Pima County Health Department leadership,” Trujillo said. “If the COVID-19 transmission data continues to trend downward, then it is possible for a post-fall authorization of games and matches.”

Catalina Foothills High School sent an email to parents of student athletes last week announcing Phase One of their program to bring back low risk activities. The email did not give a set date for practice to resume, or what low-risk activities would be included in the first phase. However, the district is urging their athletes to complete all the necessary paperwork needed so the school is ready when they are cleared to return to the fall season. 

Marana High School varsity football coach Louie Ramirez said his team has been participating in low-impact workouts without pads for the past three weeks. Conditioning practices are voluntary and athletes who choose not to participate won’t be excluded from future football games, said the coach. 

“We have a couple of kids who have parents with underlying issues or their parents are in the medical field and didn’t feel comfortable signing a waiver for them to participate,” Ramirez said. “I’m not going to force them to be here and there’s no repercussions if they don’t show up, as far as playing time goes.”

Ramirez was hoping his team would be able to start full-contact practicing this week, but those plans have been tentatively pushed to the following Monday, Sept. 21. That date could be pushed back again if case numbers rise this week. It’s all in the hands of the health department and local superintendents, said Ramirez.

“Everything changes, but we’re looking to start pretty soon,” Ramirez said. “I think the Tucson superintendents are really trying to stay united and have all of Tucson start at the same time. It’s just up in the air as far as what decision they’re going to make.”

The Tigers coach said his staff and team have adjusted their workouts and cleaning procedures to pivot with the pandemic. Workout stations are sanitized after every use, temperature checks are given before practice and conditioning training is modified to follow social distancing guidelines. The modifications may slow the practice down a little but that’s a small price to pay to bring back the team’s much needed comradery during, said Ramirez.

“We got the juice going, music is blaring, kids are running around having a great time and are really engaged in what we’re doing,” Ramirez said. “Our coaches have been able to scale it back and teach in a smaller group setting. There has been a lot of positives and a lot of comradery over the past three weeks.”

Amphi High School varsity football coach Jorge Mendivil said he is also hopeful his team can return to practice on Sept. 21. Unlike the Tigers, his team has been sidelined since the start of the quarantine and training solo without the coach’s guidance for the past few weeks. 

“We would like to be in helmets as soon as possible but none of the Amphi schools have been able to do any conditioning or phase-in work,” Mendivil said. “We’re trying to make it so we can actually practice with helmets in the first couple of days. Starting on Sept. 21 would give us about four weeks of preliminary practices before the season begins on Oct.19.” 

The biggest difficulty for the Panthers coach at the moment is not being able to give his players a set date on when they will return to practice and having his senior varsity players potentially watch their final season slip away. 

“They’re getting upset about not being able to participate, especially the varsity guys,” Mendivil said. “They’re realizing we’re getting into crunch time right now and getting antsy. My guys just want the season to start as soon as possible.” 

Private school football teams like Salpointe Catholic High School and Pusch Ridge Christian Academy have been practicing in helmets and pads since Labor Day after the A.I.A. cleared the way the previous week. Pusch Ridge Athletic Director Lonnie Tvrdy said his football teams have not begun tackling, but expect to start full-contact practices this week. 

“The rubber hits the road on Monday,” Tvrdy said.

The Christian academy decided to follow the timeline set by the A.I.A., instead of the Pima County Health Department because numerous schools outside of Pima County are also following the association’s guidelines, said Tvrdy. 

Pusch Ridge’s other low and moderate risk sports programs like swimming, cross-country, cheerleading and volleyball began training and conditioning late August in anticipation of competing against other area schools soon.

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