COVID-19 spike changes high school football outlook

Questions swirl around fall commencement of gridiron season

Posted 7/15/20

The brutal truth of Arizona high school football is there are no guarantees of when, how, and if the Friday Night Lights will burn again in the Grand Canyon State.

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COVID-19 spike changes high school football outlook

Questions swirl around fall commencement of gridiron season


Editor's note: Part 2 of a two-part online exclusive on high school football

The brutal truth of Arizona high school football is there are no guarantees of when, how, and if the Friday Night Lights will burn again in the Grand Canyon State.

On June 10, the publishing date of part one of this series, the Arizona Department of Health Services reported 29,852 total coronavirus cases and 1,095 deaths in the state. This story was finished on July 14 and that day those numbers were 128,079 cases and 2,337 deaths.

Read part 1 of this series here

The surge in COVID-19 positive tests already pushed back the start date of in-person school to at least Aug. 17. That, in turn, moved the Arizona Interscholastic Association to delay the start of football practice from July 27 to Aug. 17 at the earliest --- and the first possible Friday Night Lights to Sept. 11.

A turn for the worse

Virtually every high school football team in the state started small group weight room and outdoor conditioning workouts at some point in June and then shut those workouts down before the end of the month as cases surged across the state.

Casteel did not use equipment or football during June conditioning sessions at the Queen Creek-based school in the Chandler Unified School District. Coach Bobby Newcombe said it would be counterproductive to start things at full throttle under the state return to play guidelines.

“Obviously, we want to be competitive but you can’t do this without players and coaches,” Newcombe said.

Notre Dame Prep was on hold for a few extra weeks as the Catholic Diocese of Phoenix schools did not start workouts until June 17. The statewide surge finished the Saints’ conditioning sessions after June 25.

Coach George Prelock said the most important aspect of the offseason was not the workouts or even seeing fellow coaches and players face to face. It is finding ways to communicate and get each other through the pandemic.

“We’re trying to mold kids and trying to allow them to have a great experience. We check in on kids and their families to make sure they’re okay and help them if someone they know is going through the virus or financial trouble,” Prelock said. “That’s what it means to be a community. That’s what it means to be Catholic. That’s what we’re about.”

--- Coach George Prelock

Prelock joined fellow Valley coaches like Will Babb (Peoria), Josh Goodloe (Paradise Honors), Sean Hegarty (Shadow Ridge), and Colin Thomas (Liberty) in being thankful for even a brief semblance of normalcy this summer and in-person interaction with players.

The fourth-year Notre Dame Prep coach said everyone has a new appreciation for one another and how good it is to be able to hang out again.

“We’ve done Zoom meetings like everyone else, but that’s not the same as face-to-face,” Goodloe said. “We have 48 kids in the program and we got to see all 48 kids at different times in the three weeks.”

Paradise Honors was one of the first schools to shut down the workouts, doing so for all sports on June 22. Since then the majority of schools and districts hit pause with none declaring their intent to resume earlier than July 20.

The caseload continues to pile up as the summer dragged on and more types of businesses opened or the state allowed larger capacities. Many of those establishments, such as bars, gyms, and movie theaters are now closed.

One member of the AIA Sports Medicine Advisory Committee said the phased return to play guidelines were based on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, as well as those of the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee and the National Federations of State High School Associations.

Actions have consequences

Dr. Javier Cardenas, a neurologist at the Barrow Neurological Institute, said the inconsistent application of CDC guidelines in part has contributed to the return to play process getting stuck in neutral.

“There’s not very good communication around where we’re at. It’s not like our governmental agencies are following the guidelines created and distributed by the CDC,” Dr. Cardenas said. “There’s nobody who’s following those phases so that’s very hard to provide recommendations.”

Newcombe said he has monitored COVID-19 data for months. Now with Arizona trading national hot spot duties with California, Florida, and Texas, those statistics move to the forefront as he considers what is best for his community, players and school.

In particular, Arizona’s positive test rate hovering near 25% in early July gives him pause.

“You’re talking one of four people who tested positive if they’re getting tested. What do you do if a football team tests positive at this rate and has to quarantine for 14 days, other than cancel or forfeit two games? That doesn’t support any level of consistent sports,” Newcombe said.

Talking travel is tricky

If the state can reverse course, and schools and sports can return this fall, variables also await for football teams off the field. In particular, a large number of players, coaches, trainers, and other support personnel create complications with an active virus that can be mitigated by social distancing and small numbers of people in enclosed spaces.

An example, said committee member Dr. Kristina Wilson --- an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine physician at Phoenix Children’s Hospital --- a 60-seat bus could cap out at 30 players.

“The common challenge is any group of athletes that has to travel together,” Dr. Cardenas said. “The challenge is what happens in between games.”

He also said as the amount of people allowed in space expands a whole team might become a cohort along with bus drivers, trainers, and others.

Newcombe said typically the Colts will take two school buses to a game and would have to take four to any games that could be played this year. Casteel tends to carry a larger varsity roster of between 80 and 100 players.

While that presents its own challenges, the potential need for more bus figures to make things more difficult for schools in low-income areas and rural Arizona schools already dealing with the difficulty of traveling long distances and being exposed to a population with a greater spread of the virus.

“There are greater discrepancies for those in rural and poorer schools,” Dr. Cardenas said.

Dr. Wilson said players may need to arrive at practice dressed in uniform to avoid crowding locker rooms.

Creating the ground rules for how many can gather in an area and how teams travel is even more of a focus for Dr. Cardenas, Dr. Wilson, and the other 16 members of the medical committee rather than determining when the season can kick-off.

“It’s not so much about games themselves and when they would start. We would make recommendations about the environment,” Dr. Cardenas said.
The committee makes recommendations to the AIA executive board, which then votes on the final decision.

Dr. Wilson said the board does not always adopt all committee recommendations. But in her experience, AIA leadership and board members take health and medical recommendations seriously.

“If we feel very strongly that if there is going to be a health and safety risk, they absolutely put safety on the forefront,” Dr. Wilson said.

More than a game at stake

Most of the focus – from regulation to fan, coach and media speculation - has been of football practices and how games could be played.

The atmosphere of a Friday night, with bands, cheerleaders, and fans, has been less of a concern. And their presence is less likely with every jump in cases.

Major League Baseball, the NBA, and the NHL plan to resume games in late July or early August, and none have mentioned the possibility of fans coming back soon.

Without assigned seating, high school football has one less tool to enforce social distancing while allowing significantly reduced crowds --- like college and NFL teams could do if they choose. Dr. Wilson said a parents-only model is possible in phase two, where attendance could be limited to 50 parents/guardians total or two parents/guardians per player at the most.

Schools can enforce distancing in crowds by marking usable seats with paint or tape. In any case, high school football fans and Arizona school districts may want to check for avenues to stream live broadcasts of games.

“If you have to do it without fans it’s possible because of the ability to stream everything,” Peoria High School coach Will Babb said.

If social distancing seems difficult to enforce in the stands, try the sidelines. As Dr. Wilson said, there is no room for 50 or more kids to space out six feet apart on the sidelines.

Forget about the media or former players that normally populate the sidelines, and expect only essential administrators. Teams also face the possibility of cutting down rosters and the number of coaches on the field.

“That’s going to be one of the areas that are going to be the biggest hit. It’s going to be essential players and coaches,” Wilson said. “If the team is smaller, that will work here as well.”

Cheer is a competitive sport, governed by the AIA and its return to play guidelines.

“Cheerleaders are another group of athletes that would run the same risk as do the players,” Dr. Cardenas said.

Heading for a fall?

If games are able to start in September or October, many questions remain about the mechanics of a sport based on contacts and close proximity amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Newcombe painted one fairly common scenario. A workhorse running back carries the ball 25 times on a Friday night then tests positive for COVID-19 on Saturday.

If that happens, he asked, do all of his blockers and everyone who tackled him have to quarantine for two weeks?

The Casteel coach also is concerned that the season could start only to be waived off by the combined effects of coronavirus during the normal flu season.

An article published on the Scientific American website June 4 states that behavioral changes already adopted by some to flatten the curve of COVID-19 --- such as social distancing, hand washing, and mask-wearing --- could lessen the impact of the flu. But several epidemiologists also laid out their concerns about an overlap of COVID-19 and influenza.

“On top of that flu season is typically in October. And, every year we see a lot of players who come down with the flu,” Newcombe said.

Risk factors for teenagers are lower --- age 19 and under-represents 8,809 (or approximately 11% of the cases) in Maricopa County and only four of those cases resulted in death and 57 required hospitalization --- locally as of July 14.

Young athletes will not be in controlled “bubble” situations limiting their potential interactions like their NBA and NHL counterparts. Teenagers are being asked to be far more cautious than normal.

“We’re going to ask teenagers to social distance, wash hands and wear masks,” Dr. Cardenas said. “And the message out there is they’re a lower-risk population.”

Valley Vista coach Josh SeKoch said a football season being able to start and then having to stop because of a flu season spike in cases is a “probably the worst case a coach or athlete could imagine.”

Spring sports athletes know the feeling very well after their seasons were wiped out in mid-March.

“We felt bad for the spring sports teams. We built their hopes up with the start of a season and crushed it. Spring sports was more of a shock. COVID-19 was new,” SeKoch stated in a text. “There was a huge concern, and a fear the virus might spread, not just for sports but for schools and high-risk individuals.”

SeKoch took a summer vacation to a rural New York state and took note of some of local high school association proposals. One would push back the start of any sports to January 2021, with 10-week seasons for fall, winter, then spring sports ending in late June.

At first, the Monsoon coach was in favor of a similar plan for Arizona. He said his view has changed.

While SeKoch stated the January-June model could work if sports are in 2020, he is in favor of pushing each sport season back a month to six weeks.

Ideally, he stated, football and fall sports could have games in October through December. Winter sports would run from January through March and spring sports April to mid-June.

“Football could have smaller (conference) playoffs. Or playoffs by location — East Valley, West Valley, City of Phoenix, Tucson, and maybe a non-metro champion for Flagstaff, Yuma and Colorado River schools, etc.),” SeKoch stated. “Maybe we create a game schedule by location to reduce travel. I hope they are proactive (with schedule changes) instead of saying ‘no football.’ That all sports get at least 10 weeks or so.”