APACHE JUNCTION — What was a great football story has now abruptly concluded its final chapter in true 2020 fashion.
The Apache Junction Prospectors (3-2), led by first-year coach Bruce Binkley, qualified as the No. 8 seed in the play-in round of the 4A playoffs and was set to host No. 9 Peoria (4-3) on Friday.
That game has been forfeited by Apache Junction. The school district decided the rise in COVID-19 cases in Pinal County made playing the game too much of a safety risk.
A press release from the Apache Junction Unified School District cited new COVID metrics in Pinal County trending in the wrong direction as the reason for pulling out of the game.
The number of positive cases per 100,000 people jumped from 119 to 168 in the last week. In Maricopa County, the number rose dramatically from 133 to 212.
“We do not feel it is safe to put the student athletes and coaches out together to play with such rapidly increasing numbers,” said Heather Wallace, executive director of educational services for the school district.
Binkley will not get the chance to take his team onto the field and play for a spot in the eight-team state playoff bracket. However, he agreed with the district’s decision.
“I think the safety of the kids comes first,” he said in a statement, adding 90% of the parents he talked to Thursday also agreed it was the right call.
Peoria will automatically advance to the state playoffs with a forfeit victory.
“Peoria is considered the winner of that game,” AIA spokesman Seth Polansky told PinalCentral in a phone interview. “They would qualify for the state tournament.”
Another 4A team is also unable to compete in the state playoffs. Glendale, which won the 4A Skyline region and finished No. 9 in the 4A power rankings, has been in quarantine and won’t come out of it until 10 p.m. Friday.
At that point, Polansky said, with no practice or preparation for two weeks, the game can’t be played right away due to safety reasons. Some parents argued the game should be played at 10:01 p.m., one minute after the quarantine expires.
It’s an unfortunate scenario for both teams.
It would be understandable for Apache Junction’s players to be devastated by the news after everything they’ve been through in the offseason and earning the right to host a play-in round game.
Binkley said the players took the news better than one would expect. He also expressed confidence about the direction of the program.
“I thought we had a great year and started to build on something,” he said. “People ain’t seen nothing yet.”