Vista Grande vs. Casa Grande Union boys basketball

Fans cheer during a Casa Grande Union boys basketball game against Vista Grande on Jan. 9 at Jack Spilsbury Gym.

PHOENIX — After initially delaying the start of the winter sports season until Jan. 5, the Arizona Interscholastic Association has pushed the start date back again.

After a meeting of its executive board Friday, the AIA announced the start of the winter sports season will be delayed another couple of weeks, with the season beginning Jan. 18. This includes boys and girls basketball, boys and girls soccer and wrestling.

A press release from the AIA cited specific COVID-19 metrics going in the wrong direction as the reason for its decision. On Dec. 2, the AIA, in conjunction with its Sports Medicine Advisory Committee, released sports-specific modifications to allow a winter season to be played during the pandemic.

“While these modifications were designed to safely allow students to continue to play, there is an increasing concern that 90% of the state’s Intensive Care Unit beds are full,” the release states. “Some are projecting that ICU beds may well exceed 100% in upcoming weeks.”

The AIA mandates that every team must have 14 days of practice before beginning official competition. Having a later start date gives schools more flexibility to conduct those practices before the season begins.

“Our focus continues to be on keeping kids in school and on the playing field safely,” said Joe Paddock, associate executive director of the AIA, in a statement. “We believe this decision will help us preserve the winter sports season.”

The only factor that could change the Jan. 18 start date is a “government prohibition or shutdown," according to the AIA. The winter sports regular season is scheduled to end March 5.

The total number of weeks of competition during the winter season will be determined by each conference. In other words, 2A could decide to do something very different than 6A.

The spring sports season is set to begin March 1, so there will be some overlap between the seasons, especially for athletes whose teams qualify for the winter sports postseason.

“These measures will allow us to start the season and I hope, that as we see hospitalizations go down, some of the restrictions regarding spectators, (will) be lifted,” said David Hines, AIA executive director, in a statement.

Modifications for winter sports state that no fans will be permitted until COVID-19 metrics are appropriate.