When live sporting events all but dry up, we collectively grab onto anything remotely related to sports to fill the void.
People would have watched the ESPN docuseries The Last Dance in large numbers anyway, with or without a COVID-19 pandemic. But the ratings were off the charts, with viewership averaging 5.6 million same-day viewers for all 10 episodes about Michael Jordan and the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls.
On Sunday, a charity golf match that included Tom Brady and Phil Mickelson facing off against Peyton Manning and Tiger Woods drew an audience of 5.8 million.
So when Arizona high school football schedules started popping up on social media feeds in the last week, I got excited. Because that means the return of high school football, and other sports, is more than just a figment of our collective imagination.
It gives us something tangible, something we can look at that lets us know sports will be back.
We still don’t know if the football season will start on time. We also don’t know what it will look like when it returns. Will there be fans in the stands? If so, will there be a limit on how many can attend due to social distancing?
Will other measures be needed in order to ensure the health and safety of the players, coaches and trainers during the pandemic? These are all questions that don’t yet have answers, but I’m optimistic about a return to prep football in the fall.
Looking at the schedules of some Pinal County schools, there are some intriguing games to digest.
Remember, the Arizona Interscholastic Association has entered a new two-year scheduling block. And that means not just region realignment and some different games, but also the first games being played after a new formula was used by the AIA to determine if football programs needed to move up or down in conference.
None of the Pinal County teams moved up, but the schedules will look quite different for many of those programs.
Casa Grande Union, coming off a trip to the 4A state quarterfinals last season, opens on the road against Phoenix St. Mary’s on Aug. 21, while the Cougars’ first home game is against new 4A member Queen Creek Benjamin Franklin.
Casa Grande also has a home game against 5A Maricopa on Sept. 4 and a road trip to California on Sept. 18 to play Fallbrook, a school located 55 miles north of downtown San Diego near Camp Pendleton Marine Base.
Homecoming for the Cougars is Sept. 25 against Sierra Vista Buena (8-3), which made the 5A playoffs last year.
Vista Grande, which has gone 2-18 the last two seasons, gets a welcome respite from the brutal 4A Kino region they were in previously. In a newly configured 4A Copper Sky, opponents for the Spartans will include teams that struggled mightily last year.
Three of those teams are from Phoenix — Washington, Sierra Linda and Carl Hayden — and the other is Yuma High. Freedom contests include games against 3A San Tan Foothills (Sept. 18), Tucson Amphitheater (Sept. 25), Tucson Cholla (Aug. 28), Phoenix Shadow Mountain (Sept. 11) and the season and home opener against 3A Tucson Pusch Ridge on Aug. 21.
The new 4A Black Canyon is great for Pinal County because Poston Butte now joins the same region as Apache Junction and Combs. All three play in the same general area.
Poston Butte will play Apache Junction at home Oct. 2, and coming off their bye week, the Broncos will play Combs at home Oct. 23.
What should be an excellent freedom game is also on the schedule when Poston Butte plays at Benjamin Franklin on Sept. 25.
One of the best games on the 2020 schedule is the resumption of a classic rivalry, as 2A Santa Cruz Valley will face off against 3A Coolidge on Sept. 4 in Eloy. Santa Cruz (10-3) made the 2A state semifinals last year, while Coolidge (8-3) lost in the first round of the 3A playoffs.
And calendars must always be marked for the best Pinal County rivalry, Coolidge vs. Florence, which takes place Oct. 16 in Coolidge.
Full 2020 schedules for Casa Grande Union and Vista Grande (All games start at 7 p.m.)
Casa Grande Union
Aug. 21 — at Phoenix St. Mary’s
Aug. 28 — vs. Queen Creek Benjamin Franklin
Sept. 4 — vs. Maricopa
Sept. 11 — at Chandler Seton Catholic
Sept. 18 — at Fallbrook (California)
Sept. 25 — vs. Sierra Vista Buena (homecoming)
Oct. 2 — vs. Tucson Sahuaro
Oct. 9 — vs. Sahuarita Walden Grove
Oct. 16 — at Oro Valley Canyon del Oro
Oct. 23 — at Tucson Pueblo
Aug. 21 — vs. Tucson Pusch Ridge
Aug. 28 — at Tucson Cholla
Sept. 4 — at Waddell Canyon View (could be moved to Sept. 3)
Sept. 11 — vs. Phoenix Shadow Mountain
Sept. 18 — vs. San Tan Foothills
Sept. 25 — at Tucson Amphitheater
Oct. 2 — vs. Phoenix Sierra Linda
Oct. 9 — at Phoenix Washington
Oct. 16 — at Yuma
Oct. 30 — vs. Phoenix Carl Hayden