While little is certain and all starting dates — including those for high school football — should be considered written in pencil instead of pen, some recent developments provided hope for at least somewhat of a traditional fall of 2020 on the gridiron.
On May 18, an injunction by Benjamin Franklin, Northwest Christian and Round Valley regarding the Arizona Interscholastic Association’s football reclassifications was denied in Maricopa County Superior Court.
The lawsuit delayed the schedule-making process for some schools and the schedule-release process for all schools. Later May 18 the floodgates opened and football teams across the state posted schedules they hope will come to fruition.
Sunrise Mountain coach Steve Decker echoed the sentiments of his peers, that seeing Arizona teams release schedules provided a sign of normalcy and hope. In addition to new region rivals Desert Edge and Millennium and old foe Ironwood, the Mustangs will continue facing 6A neighborhood rival Liberty, and add Cienega and Mountain View — Tucson-area 5A playoff teams — as well as 4A champion Gilbert Mesquite and 4A semifinalist Cactus.
“I always wanted to play the toughest 5A teams we could possibly play. With the open division, I think people want to see 5A play 6A and play 4A,” Decker said.
The Peoria Unified School District planned to allow the district’s athletic teams to return to campus for weight room and outdoor conditioning workouts. Those sessions will be very different than pre-COVID-19 offseason workouts.
With no spring football and uneven or unusual workout regimens during the opening months of the coronavirus pandemic, AIA guidelines and common sense will cause coaches to gradually ramp up their conditioning programs.
“We’re not sure how many kids have access to weights. We set up two workout programs. If they did have access to weights it’s business as usual. If not, it’s a plan with push ups, sit ups and the like,” Taylor said. “This kind of reminds me of the ‘60s. Some kids will have worked out all the time and some haven’t done anything.”
In the past, weight room sessions involved all, or most of the football team and a majority of the coaches Small groups will be the norm.
And some of the most regular displays of team camraderie need to take a break for the moment.
“It’s not a big deal. To be honest when I start next week or whenever, I’m going to be gradually and for the safety of the kids,” Peoria High coach Will Babb said in a June 2 interview. “I’m going to have to reteach some things — we have a game built on high fives and pats on the backside.”
Decker said during the spring, he met with his strength and conditioning coach to keep up with what college football programs are doing.
Neighboring districts got a bit earlier start to summer workouts, with Dysart Unified School District schools starting June 1 and Deer Valley Unified School District beginning June 3. Babb and Decker said the gap is not a big deal. Taylor said, given Centennial’s opening game against defending state champion Chandler, an extra week would be nice but will not make much difference in the long run.
“We’ll be fine if we’re a week or two behind other districts,” Decker said.
While spring football was out, coaches kept in touch with players mainly through social media and Zoom meetings.
The amount of Xs and Os in those meetings varied from program to program.
“Those meetings were mostly, ‘Hey, how have you been?’ That was our approach” Babb said. “Football’s important, but not the most important thing. We say that all the time.”
While having virtual meetings and waiting for the opportunity to get together again replaced spring football, May had the highlight of the schedule revels by programs on their social media accounts.
In four of the last five years, Centennial hosted a name brand program from another state. The Coyotes considered it once again but uncertainty crept in.
“We talked to two or three teams. California teams said you need to understand that we may not play this season. So we decided not to look into that more this year,” Taylor said.
The other Peoria powerhouse, Liberty, hosted Leland High School from San Jose, Calif. in 2018 and traveled to Henderson (Nev.) Liberty last year. Originally, the Lions planned to travel to Orange County and take on Anaheim Servite Sept. 17 as part of the Trinity League vs USA multi-game event.
“I believe the concept of the series was dropped and then Servite decided to drop the game as we were considering doing the same,” Liberty athletic director Aaron Coughanour stated in an email. “The scheduling committee replaced Servite with Red Mountain which will be a rematch of last year’s title game.”
Instead, both Centennial and Liberty have scheduled the elite of 6A. The Coyotes and Lions both host Chandler, and Liberty travels for a 6A finals rematch at Mesa Red Mountain Sept. 18 and visits 6A semifinalist Queen Creek Oct. 2.
After starting Aug. 21 with Chandler, the Coyotes face a brutal closing stretch. Four are rough region opponents — Phoenix Pinnacle (Oct. 2), Phoenix Brophy Prep (Oct. 16), Scottsdale Chaparral (Oct. 23) and Liberty (Oct. 30).
Then add in road trips to last year’s 5A champ Gilbert Williams Field (Sept. 25) and Chandler Hamilton (Oct. 9) — the 6A powerhouse that knocked the Coyotes out of the open division.
“I’ve always liked to have teams on there that people will think we’re crazy for playing,” Taylor said.
While Cactus and Sunrise Mountain put together a unique 4A-5A matchup, it is not the only one. Babb said schools were asked by the AIA to look at the classifications above and below theirs when putting together schedules.
He said Peoria started by looking within its district, and Ironwood was the natural choice. Those teams meet Sept. 4, then Peoria travels to Scottsdale Desert Mountain — another 5A school — on Sept. 11.
While the spotlight is on those games, a Sept. 25 visit from fellow 4A contender Tucson Canyon del Oro and region road trips to Cactus and Northwest Christian, Babb also mentioned three other teams with lots of experience. Peoria plans to start with a visit to Flagstaff High in a Walkup Skydome game Aug. 21, hosts Tempe Sept. 18 and faces Greenway in its final home region game Oct. 23.
“The teams people don’t look at as much have a lot of players coming back,” Babb said. “I love the way the AIA is starting to pair up teams based on competitiveness.”
For now, teams across the state are taking baby steps to prepare in the hopes of the season.
Even more regular football offseason staples may be wiped out by COVID-19.
“I hope we can get some 7-on-7. That’s a big deal for us,” Decker said.