Arizona Interscholastic Association’s board

Games are back on after the Arizona Interscholastic Association’s board reversed its Friday, Jan. 8, vote to cancel the 2020-21 winter sports season due to safety concerns caused by COVID-19.

After a stunning reversal, there will be high school seasons for basketball, wrestling and soccer.

The Arizona Interscholastic Association’s board voted Friday, Jan. 8, to cancel the 2020-21 winter sports season due to safety concerns caused by COVID-19.

Then, in a stunning reversal four days later, the AIA board voted to reinstate the season. 

Winter sports seasons for high  schools again are scheduled to begin Jan. 18. 

According to Seth Polansky, the AIA Sports Information coordinator, a special executive board meeting was scheduled for Tuesday, Jan. 12. 

“While we remain concerned, the executive board members are willing to reevaluate and seek other methods to address SMAC’s concerns while looking for ways to potentially reinstate the season,” said Executive Board President Toni Corona. 

Since the announcement canceling the season, “Member schools have requested that the executive board reconsider the position stating a strong sentiment that it is better for high school students to be involved with their school and interscholastic activities than to miss the winter season,” Polansky said. 

Indeed, in the three days after the Jan. 8 vote, more than 43,000 signed an online petition demanding the AIA revote on the winter season. 

According to the petition, “People want to play parents want their kids to play we are willing to follow all modifications if they just allow us to play!”

“Through their discussions, SMAC members indicate they understand the concern of member schools and parents, but as medical professionals, they stand by their original concern and recommendation. AIA and SMAC hope parents understand that hospital capacity and medical staffing issues could be a concern as it relates to their child should he/she become injured or need medical care. A torn ACL or concussion may not be addressed as it would be under normal conditions,” Polansky added. By the same 5-4 margin that canceled the season Jan. 8, the board voted to reinstate the season Jan. 12.

Many were stunned by the Jan. 8 vote to cancel the season.

“While we understand the board’s position, we are saddened by this decision, especially considering that club sports are continuing,” said AIA Executive Director David Hines in a press release. “To the best of our knowledge, never in our 100-plus-year history has the AIA canceled an entire season. We want nothing more than for our students to be active in school and participating in interscholastic sports and activities.”

With growing COVID-19 numbers in Arizona, the AIA board held a special executive meeting Friday, Jan. 8. Closed to the public, the two-hour meeting considered the Sports Medicine Advisory Committee (SMAC) recommendation that, due to Arizona having the highest coronavirus hospitalization rate in the country, the season be canceled. 

Following discussion on Zoom, the AIA voted 5-4 to cancel the season.

Coaches from around the state said they were shocked when the news broke.

“Every single coach was glued to Twitter yesterday. With the updates on the executive board. I think we all found out that way, and the news just spread like wildfire,” said Liberty High School wrestling coach Eric Brenton.

“It was probably the most difficult conversation I’ve had to have with a group of young adults who are eager to compete. How do I tell these seniors that have put this time and effort in? They had such big goals.”

The recommendation was based on hospitalization statistics. As of Jan. 8, 93% of all intensive care unit beds and 92% of all inpatient beds were in use, according to the SMAC. The AIA agreed that sports and gatherings could increase already-high numbers.

“Unfortunately, it is expected that the state will see a continued rise in COVID-19 hospitalizations for some time. As medical professionals, we cannot in good conscience recommend that students engage in a winter season under the current conditions,” said SMAC Committee Chair Dr. Kristina Wilson.

 Zach Munoz, a board member and Peoria Unified High School District athletic director, cited the SMAC numbers.

“I don’t feel we can make a decision that overrides the decision of doctors,” he said.

But four of the board members were still in favor of sports happening this season. The discussion centered around the health of the students, staff and community.

Board member Camille Casteel said the mental health of the students set to participate in winter sports could be harmed by the lack of activity.

Also a cause for concern by those voting “yes” for the winter sports season was the fact that club and independent sports will continue to play. They believe the school teams are better equipped to handle safety protocols.

Throughout the course of the pandemic, there have been several leagues and tournaments throughout the state, hosted independently from the high schools or AIA.

“Our athletes are going to play; they’re going to congregate,” board member Jim Dean said. “Jan. 18 was the start date, with the understanding that (the season) would close if the governor shut down the state. The governor has not done that.”

Raymond S. Kellis boys’ basketball coach De’Rahn Stinson was dealt the news mere hours before his team was set to practice on Friday. He said he would likely have his team scrimmage that day to let the kids “blow off some steam.”

“Overall it’s just crazy. I don’t know what to tell my kids, especially the seniors who might have gotten a chance to go to college and get it paid for,” he said.

Stinson agreed that kids around the state would eventually find some method of competing, AIA or not.

“There will 100% be another league. As a coach, you’re just trying to do the best for the kids, so you just hope whoever has these leagues is doing it for the right reasons and that they’re safe and not just about the money,” he said.

Sunrise Mountain girls’ basketball coach Jenn Tolle, a science teacher at the school, had just finished her last class of the day when she heard the news of the canceled season. She wanted to be able to tell her players of the cancellation rather than have them find out on social media or other avenues.

The Mustangs were already set for a non-basketball team bonding activity. 

“I’ve dealt with a lot of things in 11 years at this school, but this situation both as a coach and a teacher has been absolutely unreal in every way,” she said.

“I don’t know what to expect for the future.”

The March 1 date for spring sports has not been changed.