As new COVID-19 cases in Arizona pile up daily at a record pace, some West Valley high schools and teams responded in the last week by pressing pause on offseason workouts.
Many of these teams are called the Panthers. At least four Peoria High School sports have called off planned workouts through Independence Day weekend.
As a self-contained charter school district, Paradise Schools can make unilateral decisions for its programs. On June 22, Paradise Honors administration citied the spike in cases and new county-wide mask mandate to stop all on campus athletic activities until at least July 7.
“I am concerned that we are looking at the cancellation of all fall sports. Whatever we can do now to help slow the spread of this terrible virus will hopefully allow us to get back into action when and if school resumes in August,” Paradise Honors athletic director Ben Clark stated in a Twitter interview.
The Panthers of Peoria football, and boys and girls basketball also announced they were taking a two-week workout break on June 22, and will meet again before July 6 to discuss their options. The wrestling team was about to start workouts but held out.
Peoria football coach Will Babb said every school is unique and he is not knocking any other schools or football teams who make a different decision. After evaluating the spread of the virus and where his team was at in its offseason, he decided Peoria could keep players at home during this spike and achieve similar results.
“All schools are different. I know that a lot of schools have trainers and multiple coaches who work with the kids in small groups,” Babb said. “The numbers are going up and for us, we were there six hours, two days a week. We can still get some of these results away from campus.”
The first Northwest Valley coach to suspend summer workouts, or at least the first to announce their cancellation on Twitter was also one of the newest in the area. Kellis boys basketball, now lead by coach De’Rahn Stinson, announced the Cougars would stop on June 16.
Stinson stated in a Twitter interview that the decision was pretty easy, since that day set the (then) single-day record of 2,392 new COVID-19 cases in Arizona.
“We sat down as a staff and talked about is this really the best thing to be doing for our program and our families. Being a basketball program we’re blessed to not be starting until the end of the year so we felt as a staff it is better to be more safe than sorry and to not jeopardize our season in the long run. When it comes down to it, the health of our players and their families is the priority,” Stinson stated.
Stinson announced his hire on March 23. School was already on hiatus and in-person classes would be called off March 30.
So the first-time coach got to know his new squad through Zoom meeting. He said those meetings a great foundation, but seeing the players in their element is crucial to him as a coach.
“It was very hard because we were only two weeks in before we paused our workouts and for us being a whole new staff and me being a first year varsity coach we wanted nothing more to get to work and start meeting the kids and start building those relationships and our program,” Stinson stated. “It was a hard call to stop workouts but at the end of the day it’s a marathon not a sprint and I believe in my staff and my players and I know they are still putting in work while at home, where they can be safe. And the two weeks we were able to meet the kids and have workouts was really a game changer for us because it gave us time to get to know each kid on a personal level and start building those life long relationships that we’re striving to achieve.”
Clark and his coaches came to a similar conclusion as the number of infected individuals continued to set new one-day records last week. That led to most Valley cities, including Surprise mandating the use of masks.
Clark said the decision was made that for the safety of athletes, athletes’ families and coaches, it was best to take a break for a few weeks to re-evaluate what teams were doing.
“I have talked with our admin team and other ADs at charter schools. Some are practicing and some still are not. Our number one focus will always be what is the safest for our student athletes. Taking a break is the right thing to do four our athletes and families,” Clark stated.
Peoria athletic director Michael Sivertson sat down with coaches June 22, much like when the Arizona Interscholastic Association’s return to play guidelines were sent out almost a month before.
“When this whole thing started it was like it was (June 22). Our coaches and administrators sat and discussed what we were comfortable with,” Babb said.
Much like Stinson, Babb said the toughest aspect of the next couple weeks will be losing out on the in-person interaction. Also, the way high school athletes treat at home lifting and conditioning varies.
“I think the best thing for the kids was being face to face,” Babb said. “We had some kids come back stronger for workouts but this is 4A football, so not everyone did.”
While many local teams continue to work out, they are requiring masks for athletes. On Monday, Cactus, Centennial and Kellis football and Mountain Ridge volleyball tweeted mask regulations for players when not actively lifting or running.
Stinson said he believes the guidelines the AIA have put in place are good ones, they have been very effective for the most part. But for Kellis to go back to camp, a decrease in state-wide COVID-19 cases and an improvement in state testing are a must.
He also said in the long run the most biggest step the AIA or the state could take would be to provide free testing for each athlete, coach, & referee — the same way we are able to get free physicals for athletes. This way not only the players are safe but everyone involved in making high school sports great is also safe.
“We haven’t decided what conditions need to be met. Our team will convene on July 7 and will try to come up with a plan that will preserve the integrity of our sports and keep all our athletes, families and coaches as safe as we can,” Clark stated.